​iPhone manufacturer Foxconn to play kingmaker for new robotics firms

A contract from Apple's largest supplier is a tacit endorsement. So what's so great about Xibot, the new companion robot out of China?

More robotics

Computer vision, 3D imaging are helping robots find new uses outside the factory

Computer vision and 3D imaging are helping robots find new uses outside the factory.

Another day, another robotic personal assistant on the horizon. Or "companion bot," if you prefer--we haven't really settled on a category name.

I covered Robit last week, a wheeled personal assistant from an Israeli startup of the same name. This month's entrant is Xibot, another open source sensor-rich platform on wheels, this one from Chinese technology firm Xiaoxi Technology.

Both systems look promising, but these stacked debuts, along with debuts of well-publicized personal assistants like Jibo and Buddy, signal the arrival of a muddled phase in the market. The home computer wars of the 1970s and '80s started out similarly, with lots of ambitious companies racing to iterate along a fairly predictable curve in the category's development.

Most of those companies are long gone, and not necessarily because they had inferior hardware. Making one great prototype is an engineering coup, but you have to know how to manufacture and sell the next 10,000 units if you want a viable business.

Which is why Xibot's PR strategy is so compelling. One of the main points Xiaoxi Technology hammered home in its communications with me is that the Xibot will be manufactured by Foxconn, the Chinese giant that makes iPhones for Apple.

That PR strategy isn't misplaced. Manufacturers are incredibly shy about getting into bed with unproven companies. That's especially true when it comes to hardware. The startups that fought in the arena of micro computers (ahem, "personal computers" ... the names are always fluid at the beginning) were, with a couple very obvious exceptions, preposterously well-funded out of the gate compared to many of today's hardware startups. A kid with access to her college's maker space and a few Raspberry Pi boards can build a robot that DARPA might gladly have commissioned five or ten years ago.

So WOW factor no longer means much when it comes to hardware prototypes, and manufacturers have to contend with lots of very smart and very green inventors trying to move the chessboard pieces into position to get a huge Indiegogo payday, which they assume will make their business bloom.

xibot2.jpg

Xibot is the little one.

The manufacturers are understandably wary. It costs boat loads of money to configure a factory, and electronics manufacturers need long-term contracts to survive.

Which is to say, it's a legitimate badge of honor for Xiaoxi to partner with Foxconn. The mark of a viable robot product in 2016 has everything to do with market prowess, distribution savvy, and--most importantly--a strong supply chain. By supplying that, Foxconn has given the company and the product a tacit endorsement. These are the people that make the iPhone, so that carries weight.

Foxconn, for its part, may be willing to take a bigger than normal risk on a risky robotics bet. The company has taken a deep dive into robotics. It has an ownership stake in SoftBank Robotics Holdings, which makes Pepper, the emotionally intelligent robot (another name no one's totally comfortable with), and Foxconn's CEO famously predicted that 70 percent of his company's factory labor would be performed by robots in the next five years, a statement he walked WAY back in subsequent statements, claiming the actual number is more like 30 percent.

Robot army or no, the category is clearly on the company's mind, and for good reason. The market for robotics is growing in a familiar way. I already mentioned personal computers. Overlay the growth of that category with the growth of mobile phones and smartphones and you start to get a rosy picture of the potential of robotics as a category.

The Xibot, which has raised about $25,000 on Indiegogo as of this writing, is available for preorder at an early bird price of $249. That's $70 more than Amazon's very well-received Echo, but Xibot is autonomously mobile, comes with cameras and a video display, and will serve as a roving sensor, a family companion, a gateway to the connected home, yada, yada yada ...

The baseball card stats will sound familiar. The biggest thing this bot has going for it is its maker.

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