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News, Technology

Robots at Home: Companions

Kenton Reynolds

Kenton Reynolds, Writer
@uxconnections

In this series we are taking a look at the state of domestic robots and how close we are to robots being a common feature of the home. Whilst we have seen the practicality of certain bots for domestic chores, perhaps one of the most demanded areas is robotic companions.

Throughout media and fiction, one of the most common places to find robots its in the role of a companion. Whether it be Marvin the Paranoid Android from Hitchhiker’s Guide to Star Wars’ R2-D2, we imagine robots with personalities in roles of assistance and friendship. In reality, there are three main purposes that companion bots can serve: assistance, education and companionship.

Assistance

A logical extension from the personal assistants like Alexa, Siri and Google that have taken our homes by storm since 2014, robot assistants pack the intelligence of devices like the Amazon Echo into a moving machine. Amazon are leading this evolution themselves with the announcement of Astro, the Home Monitoring Solution on wheels. Astro is paired to an app to fulfil its primary function of security which is carried out through an extendable camera on top of its ‘head’. The camera can livestream, in a similar fashion to a Ring Doorbell, and any unexpected noises are investigated so that you can see what’s going on. In addition, face recognition tech tells you when someone unknown enters your house. However the bot is about so much more than safety, it essentially appears to have an Echo Show as a face which can switch from displaying eyes to show video content, video calls as well as answering questions or carrying out any other productivity tasks you would expect from a personal assistant. Topping off this exciting product is a toybox of features such as a drinks holder on its back to deliver them around the house.

Companionship

Another reason to buy a bot is for companionship and this is taken to the max by Lovot, a small cuddly robot that’s entire purpose is to be loved. The six layers to its eyes seem to peer into the owner’s soul, demanding love and attention in the most empathetic way. Then when it calls out to you with its enhanced voice that recreates an oral cavity echo in order to simulate human-likeness, you’re compelled to pick it up and give it a hug or speak for a while. The Lovot may not have the impressive AI or connectivity of some of the other devices in this series but it certainly tops them all in feeling like a real, living being with details down to its skin/fur having a warmth to it as opposed to a cold stainless steel or plastic. As far as usefulness goes, Lovot is pretty limited. It’s only purpose is to be loved and any features serve this including its ability to recall up to 100 faces as well as how well each person treated the bot. You can even buy outfits to dress it up.

Education

Another reason for a bot is education, especially with younger children. Whether developing motor skills and creativity or knowledge that can be transferred to the classroom, robots definitely have some answers for fun learning at home. One of the more exciting products in this field is Moxie, a robot from Embodied. It’s appearance has a resemblance of Eve from WALL-E, a cylindrically contoured body with arms that flap about in excitement but its face is much more expressive; an LED display that can make eye contact as you talk and look around the room. Designed to develop social-emotional development – a skill set that has taken a hit in the recent years of lockdown – to prevent anxiety in social situations, develop friendship and conversational skills. Moxie greets you with a varied conversation every day, recommending listening to music or reading or simply asking how you are. Your response is the next building block in a fairly complex conversation too as opposed to what you may be used to with more common A.I. like Siri who is designed to simply take orders. Instead Moxie wants to know your opinions and thoughts and even replies with some of its own (though these are not always consistent, a bug for future updates). Moxie can read to your child and will follow up with questions about their favourite character or how they feel about the ending. It feels like an intelligent, friendly and educational companion for kids; aimed at 5-10 year olds.

Of course there are a multitude of alternatives to these products in all the categories mentioned. Furthermore, all three of these products are in their early stages and new updates will improve their functionality exponentially. The real limit to their usage at the moment is the price tag with Lovot and Moxie costing $2776 and $999 + subscription, respectively. More saturation in the market as the current leaders gain traction is certain to drag that tag down, but for now they are certainly pricing most consumers out.

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