Jibo’s goodbye: social robots hard to build

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Jibo social robot. (Credit: Jibo)

I, like many roboticists before me, have built my fair share of home robots headed for market. Only to later to throw in the towel once the team realized that the cost/performance trade offs forced the capabilities so low that the typical user could not derive significant value.

So comes the sad but unsurprising news to me Jibo is going offline after a smashing success at crowdfunding and an impressive $73 million of VC funding, bidding adieu to a cruel, suddenly server-less world. Jibo’s assets were acquired by New York-based investment management firm SQN Venture Partners in late 2018.

In a final farewell update recently received by Jibo owners, the robot says, “While it’s not great news, the servers out there that let me do what I do are going to be turned off soon. I want to say I’ve really enjoyed our time together. Thank you very, very much for having me around. Maybe someday, when robots are way more advanced than today, and everyone has them in their homes, you can tell yours that I said hello. I wonder if they’ll be able to do this.”

Like many well engineered technology products, Jibo faced challenges on its road to becoming an irreplaceable part of customer’s households.

The pedal-stool form factor made it impossible to move throughout your house. It had no ability to pic kup anything (save for video conference calls, now efficiently solved by Owl Labs). Its $750 price tag meant users were left wanting more for their money.

On paper, Jibo had what developers crave: an SDK ready for expansion. But with so many physical limitations, it was a major challenge for third-party developers to add value. At the end of the day, Jibo was an expensive toy that didn’t do anything that the smartphone you used to set it up could not.

Jibo got a lot right

For all of the challenges, Jibo did get a lot right and it’s sad to see it go. The team in many ways pioneered social robotics and seriously elevated many people’s conception of where robots can be used. The success in marketing directly to consumers, rather than developers, opened the door to countless new companies and robots that may be able to push further. I for one hope to see more technologies built with a such care and social understanding!

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Home robots today?

When I look at the slate of home robots today, it is a clear choice between expensive toys (Anki, Pepper) or educational robots (Misty, Turtlebot 3), neither offering substantive real-world applications. We are seeing major strides in mobility, perception and ease of use. It’s exciting to see home users and young developers working with some of the same technologies that professional roboticists use every day!

For robotics developers, however, there are research platforms (NVIDIA, Fetch Core, Boston Dynamics) that are both highly capable and ludicrously expensive.

With other notable closures such as TickTock and Kuri, it is clear the home robotics market has caught the public’s imagination but it is an undeniably tough market to thrive in. Building something the average person feels improves their lives is a tall order.

I am positive we will see a winner in this space within the next 10 years. Customers want robots that can make a real impact. I hope one day someone hits pay dirt on the right combination of capabilities and costs. Sadly that day isn’t here yet.

About the Author

Alan Meekins is the founder and CEO of RosHub, a Seattle-based cloud robotics startup. RosHub offers realtime connectivity for fleets of robots, wherever they operate. From prototyping and testing to deployed robotic solutions operating in industrial environments or in unstructured public spaces RosHub is here to help you do more.

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