The personal robot. I’ve always wanted once since watching Star Wars with my dad as a kid. R2-D2 at home, whistling at me, listening to commands and moving around on its own. I don’t only want one. I need one. So do you. At least, that’s what one new startup that has already found incredible success in the personal robotics field hopes. The company, Romotive, recently launched a new Kickstarter campaign to work on the most affordable home robot yet, the Romo 3, and the project was so exciting to me that I needed to know more. So I set up a call with the CEO, Keller Rinaudo, to discuss how Romotive started, where he sees the personal robotics industry going and to just talk about our joint love for robotics in general.
Q: What was your goal when you set out to build the initial Romo robot? Why enter the market?
A: The three cofounders are quite young. We grew up watching Star Wars and Star Trek and we were always looking forward to watching the technology progress and have always wanted robots to play a bigger role in our lives. Software needs a way of interacting with the world and robots can make that happen. We were talking a year ago that there has been crazy innovation in the internet with web applications, but no one is innovating in terms of building hardware, other than Apple. When we looked at robots in general, we found they were either cheap pieces of crap on Amazon and they broke or they were $1 million dollar tech show cases. We don’t tend to think either of those are the future of robotics. There has been innovation on the web and that’s because there are clear platforms and frameworks for startups to create really cool things without recreating the wheel. The same should exist in robotics. We wanted to create a robot that was powerful enough to do what the robots do in the movies, but affordable for consumers and designed not for factories or enterprise but for normal people… for younger versions of ourselves.
Q: The Romo is only $150. That’s super affordable, how do you keep costs down?
A: Cost was the emphasis behind creating Romo. Processors are expensive and impossible to build in small quantities. They are what make robots expensive to begin with. We already have small processors in our pockets in the form of smartphones or iPods. Those devices are ubiquitous. They are almost extraneous. These are really awesome devices with beautiful displays and Wi-Fi. Think about it. What are you going to do with those old devices? You could sell them, but for us it’s an awesome opportunity for a robot with a super powerful processor that can do things that, on the market today. Other robots cost $10,000 – $20,000 and we can do what they can for $150.
Q: How has the reaction been so far?
A: People thought we were crazy when we started. People came to us and said it was a terrible idea and told us that nobody is ever going to put a phone on the robot. Steve Wozniak bought one and came and hung out with us and told us those are the very things people said about the Apple I.
Q: The Romo can wander around rooms now, but what will the Romo 3 add? What’s possible in the future?
A: Remote 2-way telepresence, computer vision, autonomous navigation and facial recognition. These are all things we’ve started to play with. Robots have done this in the past but they cost $10,000 – $100,000. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel and go create new technology; we are interested in taking the technology in million dollar robots and making it available in a robot that’s affordable to normal people. We want people to use them in their homes and to create a robot that is so simple to use that my grandma can buy it and put her smartphone on it. Suddenly grandma is using a robot.
The current model took about 3 months to build. We built the first batch by hand and promised 100 robots by Christmas and stayed up for days on end skipping showers, not eating well and building robots. Then we shipped thousands around the world. That was the original robot that had 30 components. And you can put a phone in it and control it over a local LAN network. It had a cute personality and you can change its face. That was a huge hit. But after listening to feedback, we had a sense for things we wanted to do better. So the last 9 months we’ve spent developing a new robot that’s easier to use and is more robust. There’s more capacity to do more things on the software side.
Now, the Romo 3 works perfectly over all wireless networks. The startup process is also insanely simple. You take the phone, plug it in and it automatically prompts you to download app. You can instantly take control of it from a Mac, iPhone, iPad or iPod. We want it to be kind of like a pet. When he (the Romo 3) gets out of the box, he goes slower than his max speed. We want him to do things like learn new words over time and you can unlock them as you play with him.
You’ll be able to control it from anywhere in the world soon. You can go to Hong Kong, pull out your iPad, open the app and take control of the robot at home. That allows you to check to make sure you locked the door or chase your dog. It’s really simple.
Q: So Romo 3 can be used to keep people connected?
A: Yes. For some things it’s better than Skype. Try to get your kids to sit in front of Skype. With the Romo 3, mom can buy one, plug in an iPod touch it and send a link to grandma. She can drive it around and interact with her grandkids. That’s much more engaging than looking at someone’s face on a screen.
We think the potential for human connection is huge. Everyone knows that. Several firms like iRobot are building telepresence robots. Those all cost between $2,500 and $20,000 dollars. This is accessible at a family level. Those robots focus on enterprise or medical solutions. It misses the point of hanging out with friends or doing cool things like inviting your grandma to participate remotely in Thanksgiving dinner. It’s cool. You can blow people’s minds.
It’s important to form an emotional connection with someone in a three dimensional space. The robot can come toward you or move away and laugh and run into the next room. You can establish a strong connection to the robot or to the person controlling it. That’s just one functionality.
Q: What else can we expect?
A: There are lots of other cool things you can do. We’re in the process of building out autonomous navigation. This will enable stuff like Romo hearing the doorbell ring, then he’ll go to the door and say no one is home. Something like that. And technology that enables Romo 3 to know where he is, and whether or not he’s been there before. Our whole philosophy is we don’t have to build expensive hardware to do magical stuff. It’s affordable and simple enough that anyone can use it. People would never expect a $150 robot to do these things. The mechanical engineering team right now is exploring an inductive charging pad so the robot can autonomously navigate to its “home” to charge himself. You don’t have to take care of him.
Q: What’s the battery life like?
A: On the first robot the battery lasts about 3 hours. Now it lasts 8 hours wandering around constantly. The old one had an on/off switch. But people always left it on and it would run out of battery. The new robot has an integrated power management system, so if the phone is on the robot it wakes up. It even has LEDs that glow like a heartbeat. When you take your phone or iPod touch off the robot, it goes into power saving mode instantly. We also use a custom mini USB charger that plugs into your computer. We don’t believe in proprietary chargers.
How long until we see Android support?
A: The short answer is definitely yes, it’s coming, and it’s very important to us. A lot of cool stuff in robotics today is being done on Android. The first model did support Android and we spent a ton of time creating a cross-platform library. We found that all of our customers with bad experiences were on Android because it wasn’t consistent. We were spending 1/5th of our time developing for iOS and testing on three devices and then 4/5th of the time testing on hundreds of Android devices. We’ll wait on supporting Android and make sure everyone has an absolutely awesome experience with the robot. That’s why we’re focused on iOS now. We can develop bug-free software consistently. As soon as we can, we will put it over to Android.
Q: Interested consumers can pre-order one from Neiman Marcus, but what are your other retail plans?
A: We’re talking to lots of retailers and we’re really excited about those relationships, but we’ll announce our partners as it launches. We definitely have plans to launch in retail stores, it’s just a matter of time.
We’re shipping in January to Kickstarter supporters. We’re working our butts off to ship sooner than that. We hope to over deliver, which is something we’ve found Kickstarter projects rarely do. We ought to have robots to backers at the latest in January. So, the best way to get a robot is to back the project. Our Kickstarter backers will get it at the same time as Neiman Marcus. You can also play a role in watching the process unfold. We’re providing exclusive access — Kickerstarters will be able to take control of robots here in our office. We’re working on incentives like that, and it’s one of many things we want to do for our backers to get to know the team and be a part of the journey of building these robots.
Q: Will your robot, or any other, eventually take over the world?
A: (Laughs) We’re launching a video covering that topic shortly.
Update: And here it is.
Q: Final words for our readers?
A: We’re a team of nerds trying to do something crazy it has been very, very, cool to watch. We were blown away when we raised $10,000 on the first day of our first campaign. Now, we’re already at like $58,000 in the first 24 hours for our new campaign. We know we’re not the only robot geeks out there.
There you have it, folks. It looks like owning our own personal R2-D2 robots isn’t so far off. We might not have them displaying holograms anytime soon, but we love the idea of having a device that we can control remotely and one that’s capable of human interaction. We can’t wait to keep an eye on this project moving forward.