Ever since Rosey the Robot took care of “The Jetsons” in the early 1960s, the promise of robots making everyday life easier has been a bit of a tease.
Rosey, a metallic maid with a frilly apron, “kind of set expectations that robots were the future,” said Colin M. Angle, the chief executive of the iRobot Corp. “Then, 50 years passed.”
Now Angle’s company is trying to do Rosey one better – with Ava, a 5-foot-4 assistant with an iPad or an Android tablet for a brain and Xbox motion sensors to help her get around. But no apron, so far.
Over the past decade, iRobot, based outside Boston, has emerged as one of the nation’s top robot-makers. It has sold millions of disc-shaped Roomba vacuum cleaners, and its bomb disposal robots have protected soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, with Ava, it is using video and computing advances to create robots that can do office work remotely and perhaps one day handle more of the household chores.
In late January, iRobot expanded a partnership with InTouch Health, a small company that enables doctors at computer screens to treat stroke victims and other patients from afar. And this week, Texas Instruments said it would supply iRobot with powerful new processors that could help the robots be more interactive and gradually lower their cost.
“We have a firm belief that the robotics market is on the cusp of exploding,” said Remi El-Ouazzane, vice president and general manager of the Texas Instruments unit that makes the processors.
Angle’s hopes for broadening the industry’s appeal are shared by other robot companies, which have struggled to expand beyond industrial and military uses, toys and other niche products.
Programming robots to mimic human behavior remains difficult. But the ability to use the tablets as simple touch-screen controllers is attracting more software developers, who are envisioning applications that could enhance videoconferencing, provide mobile security guards and sales clerks and help the elderly live longer in their homes.
And with their own innovations now at the center of the effort, the technology giants – Apple, Google, Microsoft and the semiconductor companies – are also pushing things along.
Angle, 44, who has been at the forefront of robotics since he was a student at MIT, said Ava “is one of the things in our pipeline that I am personally most excited about.” But he cautioned that the robot was still a prototype and would not report for any actual work duties before next year.
Angle estimates that the early versions of Ava will cost in the tens of thousands of dollars, high enough that the company is focusing first on medical applications with InTouch Health, based in Santa Barbara, Calif.
InTouch already has robots with video hookups in many smaller hospitals, and they have saved lives in emergencies when specialists could not get there in person. But the doctors have to drive and manipulate the robots with joysticks to see the patients.
Angle said that a tap on Ava’s tablet screen could dispatch it to the right room and free doctors from the more mundane controls. Its mapping system, based partly on Microsoft’s 3-D motion sensor for the Xbox, could enable the robot to hustle to the patient’s bedside without slamming into obstacles.
As time goes on, Angle says he thinks that businessmen could use the robots as proxies at meetings, speaking and watching wirelessly through Ava’s headgear and even guiding her into the hall for private chats. And if the sticker price eventually gets down to consumer levels, as he thinks it will, Ava could, with arms added, dispense pills to baby boomers or even fetch them cocktails.
Still, given how long other robotic breakthroughs have taken, Wall Street is not sure what to make of all this yet.
As sales of its vacuums and military robots grew, iRobot’s earnings shot up to $40 million last year from $756,000 in 2008, and its stock surged to $38 a share from $7. But with pressure mounting for budget cuts at the Pentagon, Angle told analysts last month that the company’s military sales could drop by as much as 20 percent this year, and the stock quickly tumbled to $25 to $26 a share.
The company had laid off 55 of the 657 employees it had last fall in anticipation of a slowdown in military sales in the United States, and the head of that division departed last month amid concerns that iRobot had not picked up enough military sales to foreign governments.
Frank Tobe, an independent analyst who publishes the Robot Report online, said that until Ava was equipped to pick up and handle objects, the robot would have limited uses. But he said the partnership with InTouch gave iRobot a much-needed toehold in health care. iRobot plans to invest $6 million in InTouch, and Tobe said by combining their technologies, the companies could produce devices at a much lower cost and attract more business.
IRobot also faces growing competition from robotics companies in Asia and Europe, many subsidized by governments that believe the innovations will help push their economies forward. But analysts say iRobot has a number of crucial patents. And the company has a strong track record in finding practical uses for robots and getting them to market.
Angle’s first robot, built in the late 1980s with Rodney Brooks, an MIT professor, was Genghis, a buglike creature that ended up in the Smithsonian. Powered by microprocessors with only 156 bytes of memory, it could walk on six legs. It also showed that robots could be programmed to react to just a few basic rules.
That project piqued Angle’s interest in building simple, practical robots. He, Brooks and another MIT graduate, Helen Greiner, started iRobot in 1991, he said, “to make robots that would touch people’s lives on a daily basis.”
But that goal proved harder than they expected, and a decade of trial and error followed. Standing by a display here at the company’s headquarters, Angle pointed to some of its early efforts, including a robotic doll for Hasbro called My Real Baby and little wooly blue and orange creatures that could scurry and hide.
Angle said, “from the very first moments of iRobot, whenever I would introduce myself to someone on an airplane or wherever, the response nearly 100 percent of the time was not ‘How are you?’ but ‘When are you going to clean my floors?’ They wanted Rosey from ‘The Jetsons.”’
“So very, very early on, we knew cleaning was a great application, if only we could figure out how to do it,” he added.
But it was not until 2002 that everything came together, with the introduction of the Roomba vacuum and an urgent military demand for robots that could check out dangerous caves in Afghanistan. Those 50- to 60-pound robots, called Packbots, also turned out to be critical in Iraq in disarming roadside bombs and acting as sentries at checkpoints.
Since then, sales of new versions of the Roomba, which cost $350 to $600 each, have taken off, especially overseas. The company has started selling robots for cleaning bathroom floors, called Scooba, for $280 to $500. It has also developed lightweight robots with video cameras that soldiers can toss into windows before storming a building. They include a 30-pound model and a tiny new two-pounder, called FirstLook, now being tested in Afghanistan. And even if their orders slow, top Pentagon officials remain committed to robots to save money and soldiers’ lives.
The company’s goal, Angle said, continues to be building robots that can operate more autonomously or provide “remote presence” – tech-speak for enabling people to be in two places at one time.
(Angle knows something of that language. After he appeared in 2008 as an MIT professor in a film with Kevin Spacey called “21,” the director said he had gotten just what he wanted from Angle. “You know, you just can’t coach geek.”)
Angle said he, too, was looking forward to the day when robots like Ava would have arms and even keener sight.
“I like the idea that if you have a party, the robot can recognize faces, take drink orders, go back to the kitchen, load it up and then go back and find those people and deliver the drinks,” he said. “I think that would be awesome.”