The big picture: We've been talking and thinking about robots for decades now. Between Isaac Asimov's seminal science fiction writing on the subject, Star Wars heroes R2-D2, C-3PO and BB-8, and the innumerable other movies, TV shows, comics and other media that they've inspired, robots have become a part of mainstream culture. But, despite grandiose predictions over the years, they've yet to have any kind of real impact on our daily lives.
Robotic vacuums from companies like iRobot have become very popular, but they aren't exactly the kind of anthropomorphic machines that most people associate with the idea of a robot. Enter Amazon's new Astro, a limited availability $999 device that's one of the first robots designed to interact with people inside their homes.
Amazon's positioning of Astro focuses on its ability to function as a combination mobile home security camera, information and entertainment service (via Alexa) on wheels, and communications tool to connect with family and loved ones. But there's absolutely no denying that it's also a personality-imbued digital companion.
Even the name is a bit of a giveaway (though it's unlikely Amazon would actually admit to this)---at least for those of us with long memories. The Jetsons cartoon series from the early 1960s featured a comical vision of a future family, complete with robots of all types, and their dog was named Astro. In some ways, I'd argue, it looks like Amazon's Astro is a kind of digital dog that follows you around and wants to help you out.
The difference, of course, is that the robot Astro is a Wi-Fi connected, digital device, powered by a Snapdragon CPU, running an operating system based on Fire OS and Linux, with a 10" touchscreen, stereo speakers, a USB-C port and two digital cameras---one that's built into the touchscreen with 5 MP resolution, and another with 12 MP resolution and an integrated IR sensor that's at the end of a retractable periscope that extends 42" inches above the ground from Astro's back.
What's most fascinating about Astro is that it simultaneously highlights the technological progress we've made towards creating a consumer-friendly robot as well as how much further we still have to go. On the one hand, it seems to skillfully integrate a number of important technologies, sensors and AI-powered software advancements into a cute, functional package. On the other hand, it can't climb any steps and the lack of any type of robotic arm severely limits some of the more advanced capabilities that I'm sure many people would like to see available in a personal robot. To put it practically, yes, Astro can bring you a cold beer or other beverage, but another human (on the same floor) must put the drink into Astro's carrying area in the first place.
Still, it offers promise about what is still to come. Amazon has made it clear that Astro is just the first of its efforts in the consumer-focused robotics field. Though details on this are still a bit unclear, there will eventually be ways to personalize Astro and extend its capabilities. At some point in the future, Amazon is expected to offer a software development kit that will let other companies bring additional functions and, perhaps, personality traits to the device (along with the hordes of hobbyists that may turn this into one hot gadget).
The built-in USB-C port can be used to attach accessories to Astro, with the first few being a wireless blood pressure monitor from Omron (emphasizing the potential digital caregiving role Astro might be able to play), a Furbo dog treat dispenser, and custom storage container from Ziploc.
Out of the box, the capabilities of Astro certainly look to be intriguing, with the ability to have a roving screen and a constant source of information or entertainment (via Alexa) likely proving to be appealing to some. The ability to periscope up a camera and visually check on things, like an oven setting, an alarm, a pet, or even a loved one, is also going to be a compelling benefit for some users. It's unfortunate the screen can't periscope up as well, but apparently that would cause balance issues with Astro.
At the same time, it's clear that the price point (which jumps up to $1,449 once the initial limited Day 1 editions versions are gone) and the functions included certainly won't appeal to everyone. Plus, there will be the inevitable concerns about privacy that are bound to be raised from a multiple camera-equipped, internet-connected device inside your home. It seems pretty clear to me that intentionally bringing a robot into your home completely changes the expectations around many of these issues. It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that part of what you want with something like an Astro is to view what's going on inside your home when you aren't there.
To Amazon's credit, the Visual ID face identification feature is opt-in (meaning, you have to agree to turn it on and use it) and that the facial recognition data is stored only on the device. The company also provides obvious visual clues when the onboard cameras are on to help ensure that camera information isn't being sent when you don't want it to be, and it offers a simple way to immediately turn the cameras off.
Ultimately, though, I have to admit to being most intrigued by the digital companion and personality-driven features of Astro. Sony's line of Aibo robotic dogs hinted at this, but their significantly higher price and lack of practical features kept it as little more than a niche, electronic curiosity. With Astro, Amazon is taking on a significantly more ambitious goal, and despite its obvious limitations, I can see it triggering an exciting new era of personal robotics.
Bob O'Donnell is the founder and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.