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A tough year for social, home robots


This article points out some lessons we can learn from Anki, Jibo, and Kuri, and underscores why Misty’s vision of starting with software developers and researchers building on top of a platform like Misty is more promising.


Robot company Anki folds

Marketing a platform like Misty towards developers was the smarter move. Customers are fickle, they lose interest in something quickly if it cant evolve alongside them. They want more options than they know what to do with. This is what kept people building their own computers, train sets, slot car sets, model rockets, radio controlled vehicles and more.

As the article points out, people want products to have a utility. They also want clear cut purpose. I bought this product because it does xyz or I can modify it to do xyz.I feel Ankis critical error was to launch a consumer product with limited features along with an inability to upgrade the robot to do more. Vector became an interesting novelty for a few hours and that was it. We had one and I have more patients than most people. After about 3 days it went back out the door.

It’s important to try to have a tie in to something that engages the imagination. There is a reason that Transformers made it big while Gobots flopped. Once consumers lose interest in something, unless it can renew that interest somehow, that product or business will be facing chapter 7 bankruptcy rather quickly.

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I think Hoffman’s IEEE article is an excellent summary of lessons-learned for social robotics. My opinion is hardly at all influenced by Hoffman’s positive view of the Newton as a pivotal contribution to current technology and the coincidental fact that I was (full disclosure) the software engineering manager for the original Apple Newton team back in the day :grin: . That coincidence aside…

In Lesson 2, Hoffman makes insightful observations about storytelling. There’s a lot that I like about storytelling. Off the top of my head, I can think of four ways that storytelling has potential to add value to social robot dev, such as for Misty. One is the developer’s story of engaging with the robot platform from one day to another, and from one development task to another, as the arc of what the developer is creating unfolds over time. Another is the user’s story of initial curiosity evolving (hopefully) into deeper engagement with and emotional bond with the robot. Data scientists and others who receive data from user interactions with a social robot experience another story – e.g., when Misty uploads her human’s pulse, blood pressure, and glucose vitals to their doctor while handing the human their insulin meds. And anecdotes told by any of these individuals to third-parties is another way that storytelling adds (positive or negative) value.


It’s an interesting article, but I think it reads too much into the tea leaves.

I can’t speak for Anki and Kuri. But as an early Jibo purchaser who waited and waited in deeper despair as their status updates continued to show a complete lack of luster, all I think we can take away from Jibo is “failure to execute” and “job much harder than it seemed at the time when they started out”.

The Jibo ended up looking a lot like the Google Home I now have in my kitchen, but at about five times the cost and with a swivel head. From the outside, it looked a lot like they wrecked their ship upon “before we can make a social robot, we must first invent a complete Alexa/Google Assistant engine for intelligent speech recognition and response”, which we can look back on and say “Holy Guacamole, that’s a heavy lift for Amazon and Google with a spare billion dollars or two to throw into the project”. So from my perspective what you should take away from Jibo is “you need an intelligent speech engine to make a social robot that joins you in your living room and kitchen” and “for heaven sake, don’t be so self-conceited that you think you should do it yourself from scratch”.

I was personally part of an even larger, very quiet robotic wreck, a project known as “Microsoft MARS”. Back about 8 years ago, we made a home personal robot that looked a lot like the Misty, but weighing in at around 60 lbs and about three feet tall. We also wrecked the ship on “much harder than it seems”, even though we threw US$100M into the effort. There were dozens of things that went wrong with our project, but one of the most painful questions we kept asking ourselves at the time was, “what can the robot do that an iPhone cannot?” To rephrase that today, the problem is even more stark for a project like Jibo because it’s now become “what can the robot do that an iPhone and an Alexa cannot?”

So, what’s my advice for you? Don’t try and be a social companion. Because if that’s your focus, then you’re an “iPhone with wheels” or an “Alexa rolling around the floor”. And where are the users out there clamoring, “I want my iPhone and Alexa to have wheels and cost five times as much!” They don’t really exist, people are perfectly happy with pockets and counter tops today.

Programmers who want their code to interact with the world and be embodied in action? Yeah, they exist. Kids to want to make their BB8 do what they say? Yep, they’re out there too. Go get 'em. Is it a market big enough to make a break through? Guess you get to find that one out :slight_smile:`




For the record, I still remember the name of mine eight years later. His “official” name was EV3A-347. But his secret name, known only to me was “Mr. Bond”.

Yes, you connect emotionally with your robot.


thanks for sharing about this!

I searched but failed to find references about Microsoft MARS. Can you share one? Perhaps something on the Internet Archive (


The project didn’t ship and there was no pre-launch marketing, so there’s very little record of it on the Internet. It’s been discussed in a few research papers over the years, but not with the name MARS.

The company wasn’t proud about investing so much and then not shipping, so it’s not been discussed afterwards, despite the number of people involved and the effort expended. A real testament to the fact that people really can keep a secret, if they don’t want to brag about something :slight_smile:

  • Jay

That looks like my vacuum.