Blue Frog Robotics, a French company with offices in Boston and San Francisco, just raised more than $600K in its successful Indiegogo campaign for Buddy, a companion robot that it wants to make "accessible to everyone."
Like any good companion, Buddy does a lot. The bot makes video calls, sends messages, acts as a calendar and alarm clock, monitors the home when users are out, interfaces with popular smart home solutions, offers assistance in the kitchen, and entertains the family with music, videos, and all-around cuteness (it really is pretty cute).
The unit is 22-inches tall and fully mobile, with three wheels and lots of sensors that enable it, with the help of some robust AI technology, to learn and interact with the world around him. The robot's brain is an integrated 8-inch smart tablet with built in Wifi and bluetooth. In addition to face & object detection, recognition, and tracking, Buddy is able to hear, speak, and make coinciding head movements, which Blue Frog believes makes the unit feel, if not human, at least something other than machine.
The market for companion robots is nascent, with the first few systems available for purchase this year. But companion robots are likely to be the next hot consumer and commercial robotics category, a spot currently occupied by drones. The earliest penetration will likely be in elder care, a huge market in both the U.S. and Europe which companies like Aldebaran, maker of bots Pepper and Romeo, have been eyeing for the last couple years.
On the consumer side, early voice-enabled AI technology like Apple's Siri and, more recently, Amazon's Echo, which is getting high marks and looks to be selling briskly, is paving the way for more robust robotic systems that are mobile and that will eventually have articulated arms and an array of end effectors. (The basic model of Buddy, aiming to bridge the gap between Echo and Pepper, has no arms, though add-ons are available.)
Blue Frog built Buddy on an open-source platform using popular development tools, such as OpenCV and Unity3D, a bid to encourage as many global developers as possible to build applications for the system. Because Buddy uses popular programming languages and the mobile operating system Android, Blue Frog believes that "more developers will be able to build software and hardware solutions for BUDDY than for other companion robots," according to a statement. It's a prudent move, one culled straight from the rise of mobile devices: instead of selling hardware, sell robots-as-platform. It's also the reason why I believe the robotics revolution will be open-source.
The stated mission at Blue Frog Robotics serves as a pretty good portrait of what consumer robotics will become in the next few years. The company wants to design and develop bots that are accessible to and affordable for current users of consumer electronics, that help people live easier and safer, and that throw a bit of fun in the mix. The unit was available to Indiegogo funders for $649, and the first orders are expected to ship in July 2016.