An $800 clothes-folding robot actually makes sense

Just remember, people thought robot vacuums were pretty silly before the Roomba.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

There's a new robot creating lots of buzz, but it can't walk, talk, vacuum, or weld. FoldiMate does one thing, and it does it well: It folds your laundry.

Commence with the eye rolls, let the Oh brothers! fly. But keep in mind that a robot vacuum cleaner was once considered the height of ridiculous, and now iRobot, maker of the bestselling Roomba series, is the undisputed king of the home robotics market.

In fact, FoldiMate may be primed for success precisely because its makers are following a path trod by iRobot. We're at the very beginning of the personal robotics era -- Home Bot 1.0, let's call it -- but too many personal robotics companies are pursuing ambitious multi-function bots designed to be personal assistants, tutors, entertainers, and sassy sidekicks all in one. The approach seems to be: if you engineer it, customers will come.

But the vast majority of consumers still get a kick out of that robot vac, and if connected home devices like Amazon's Echo are priming the pump for more fully featured interactive robots, its the quotidian concerns of the household that rule the day when it comes to spending money on appliances.

Which brings us to laundry folding. It's the very picture of a time-sucking chore, and unless you're the primary folder in your household, don't dismiss how irksome it can be. If you have kids who aren't of folding age, the task is doubly annoying. But it's also largely repeatable, which makes it a candidate for automation.

According to FoldiMate, the bot will fold and treat most kinds of laundry (like shirts, pants, and towels). It's not equipped to fold big sheets or small items like underwear or socks, so you're still on the hook for those boxer briefs. Between 15 and 20 items can be fed (or "clipped") into the machine at a time. It takes about ten seconds to fold each item. There's also a de-wrinkling feature, which may be the clincher.

The most amusing part (and this may herald the official death knell of the app economy) is that the machine is programmed to make a "standard fold," while additional folding styles can be purchased through FoldiMate's internet store. Amazing.

This isn't the first clothes folding robot we've seen. In 2010, YouTuber msjahloo posted a video of a crude-but-effective clothes-folding machine built using a cheap processor, cardboard, and wood. A clothes folding bot named the Laundroid debuted at CES 2016. But FoldiMate is the best-designed attempt we've seen, and will probably be the first to market. Preorders start in 2017 and the first machines are scheduled to ship in 2018.

This is what personal robotics in the second decade of the 21st century should be: a way to solve the little problems with clever, user-friendly, and task-specific machines. One day Rosie, the maid android from The Jetsons, will be around to do it all, but for now consumers want their robotic solutions piecemeal.

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