Getting to know Amazon's Astro

The rolling, Alexa-infused consumer robot knows how to make itself feel at home.

As I mentioned in my last column on Astro's approach to defining a category, I was an Astro tester. This led to some further interest in what life with Astro was like, so I'm sharing a bit more about its setup and my early impressions.

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My experience with Astro started before I knew what it was. Before testing, Amazon wanted to know a bit more about the layout of my home, in particular some details about stairs, potential shiny glass or mirrored objects, or any large bumps or recessed areas like a sunken living room. Once everything checked out, and Astro arrived, we went through the setup process. 

After the typical steps, you'd go through to add a modern Wi-Fi product to your home, Astro prompts you to enroll your family members so it can recognize their faces, an experience that is, again, like enrolling for Face ID. Astro uses this info to greet household members when it sees them silently, and so you can tell it to go to members of your household. It's also used to identify unknown people when in surveillance mode.

The most unique aspect of the Astro setup experience, though, is how it learns about your home. You activate a discovery mode where Astro drives around the floor. Once it builds a map of your home (which you can view at any time and use to block off areas), you give it a home tour in which it follows you around and listens as you tell it the name of which room it's in. My wife commented that the process evoked the way a duckling imprints on its mother.

A unique aspect of Astro is its relationship with Alexa, which is a part of it and yet separate from it. On the one hand, Astro functions as an Echo Show and will respond to your Alexa wake word. On the other hand, it has its own identity and will also respond to the wake word "Astro." I like the ability to address Astro specifically as, even at launch, it can respond to many requests that would cause an Echo to throw up its hands (if it had them).

An endearing, if token, example that shows off the early development of Astro's personality is asking it to dance, which has it shake its, um, cargo area for a bit as a tune plays. Speaking of which, Astro's loudspeakers, amplified by the floor, have no problem dropping the bass. In contrast to chatty Alexa, Astro has no voice of its own, communicating exclusively through its display and the beeping sound effects associated with C-3PO's rolling companion.

There are many details to understanding the Astro experience, but here are some of the main things that struck me.

Astro knows its way around

Unencumbered by the need to suck up dust like a plodding vacuum, Astro's big wheels allow it to speedily move around your home fast enough that its momentum can carry it over small bumps. And unlike those vacuums that need to get close to detect an obstacle's presence, then back up and turn, Astro's wide field of view and knowledge of your home layout allow it to move around more like a pet would. This lets it quickly complete tasks such as, "Astro, go to the kitchen."

Astro is short

Sorry, little guy, but it's true. With its elevated display, Astro is taller than a cat and at about the eye level of a small dog, which made for a fun perspective when remotely viewing its camera as it made a run through the house. While its rotating and articulating display tilts up to make it easier to read when you're interacting with it, it soon becomes obvious that it would be great if Astro could meet you eye-to-abstract-eye-drawing like some of those telepresence bots mounted on Segway-like bases. Alas, this would be difficult to implement without compromising the product's center of gravity. It would also, I expect, make Astro more imposing. Amazon hasn't embraced Astro as a pet yet, but it has indicated intent to develop its personality. The robot's level of processing and motion capabilities would enable a richer e-pet experience than Sony's Aibo, even if Astro doesn't quite look the part.

Astro won't catch you by surprise

Despite its low height, Amazon wants you to be aware of its presence. Its exterior is light and, it's likely to be one of the larger electronic devices in your home, particularly if you consider its docking charger. It isn't shy about lighting up its screen as you approach. In contrast to the whisper-quiet movement of the Echo Show's screen motor, it's quite audible as it moves around. And the only way it could be easier to notice when its periscopic camera is raised would be if Amazon added a rotating beacon light like those on the back of the golf cart-like vehicles that whisk people through airports.

In my last column on Astro, I touched on the longstanding cultural sensitivity to robots as a threat. It's unclear how much that, versus generally good design principles, factored into Astro's design. The product's first customers will surely be above a level of apprehension that can border on superstition. As the product's functionality advances, though, it needs to become a trusted member of the household, one that's a hybrid between a pet and an assistant. With its first foray, Amazon has done much to raise the comfort level of welcoming Astro into the home.

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