Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: CES 2016: The Business Gear

Roving appliances, emotional pluck, and cloud power: A sneak peek at the coolest robotics trends of CES

This is the year that robots come home

Seems like every month there's more talk about consumer robots.

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It's called robot creep, although by now it's more like an all-out sprint. The last three years have seen robots come out of the lab and metamorphose into viable products. First came robot vacs and 3D printers. Drones, once novelty items, are now ubiquitous. The first generation of companion robots went home last year, and kids as young as five are getting a chance to build robots as part of their school's STEM curriculum.

Robots will get a big spotlight at this year's CES, and consumer bots will blow up in 2016. Here's a preview of the coming year's biggest consumer robotics trends.

The robots are coming ... home

In many ways, 2015 marked an epochal shift when it comes to companion robots. Aldebaran's Pepper, probably the most sophisticated "emotionally intelligent" robot on the market, did some nice retail work at SoftBank stores in Asia before going on sale to consumers in limited quantities. Stretching the definition of robot slightly, Amazon's Echo launched to wide acclaim and has helped build a bridge between smart phone AI and the kinds of interactive robotic systems we'll see more of in days ahead.

Those systems will get early embodiment in bots like Jibo and Buddy, both of which will reportedly be able to react to emotional cues given by the user in contextually appropriate ways. The creators of each system raised big money in 2015 and plan to send their bots out into the world by mid-2016.

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Patin by Flower Robotics. Patin means "skate" in French. The mobile robot can skate your appliances around the house, changing the way you interact with them.

Aside from companion and personal assistant bots, developers will be looking for innovative ways to roboticize the gadgets you already have. One of the products on display at CES is the Patin by Flower Robotics. The automated robot platform is designed to work with existing products, essentially turning whatever you own into a robotic version of itself. The "autonomous mobilization of existing function" is the concept of Patin. In other words, in a not-too-distant future the microwave may meet you at the couch.

Cloud Robotics

A problematic limitation of robots is that they can only carry so much brain power. Processors take up space, are power-hungry, and need to be kept cool, creating natural limits to a robot's on-board intelligence. But the cloud is a particularly alluring solution. Need a lightweight robot that can store and process massive amounts of real-world data and perform deep learning functions? Want to keep it cheap? For many applications, the cloud provides the perfect answer.

Cloud robotics benefits from converged infrastructure and shared services. It allows robots to use all the computational, storage, and communications resources of modern data centers. In addition, it removes overheads for maintenance and updates.

Some refinement

If 2015 was about revolutionary debuts, 2016 will be about curb appeal, maturation, and refinement. Pick a consumer robotics category, any category, and I'll show you a slew of streamlined next gen iterations designed to convert the robot reluctant.

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Ack, my dad's a stick!

One category in particular worth paying attention to is telepresence robots, which offer virtual workers and students a mobile, embodied presence in the office or classroom from any connected location on earth. Telepresence got a real toehold in 2015, and with some low-cost options now on the market, including models from Double and Kubi, the technology is being put to good use in workplaces that might not previously have considered a telepresence solution, including in IT departments. Look for a big announcement from a major player in telepresence during CES.

Drones are another category that's growing up fast. A robotics journalist can't open his email these days without a pitch from a new drone startup. With the market glutted of cinematic quadcopter, the game has shifted to automated flying and more robust sensor packages. There are 27 drone exhibitors at this year's CES (27!), and some of the coolest offerings include drones that can communicate with each other and quadcopter small enough to fit in your hand.

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