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Of product and promise: Amazon's Astro pursues a new robotics category

I tested Astro in my home. It didn't change my world, but it did shift my worldview.
Written by Ross Rubin, Contributor

Amazon and third parties have put Alexa into so many different types of products that it is easy to find a place for them in virtually any home. And, while these products' far-field microphones have helped them excel at staying within earshot, the exchange backpath has been more challenging when it has involved displays that have ironically become increasingly more important in service of ambient computing.

Overcoming that display limitation is just one of the benefits of Astro. In a world where faceless discs have dutifully sucked up carpet detritus for years, Astro is a category-defining robot that seeks to introduce us to a future of robots that extend well beyond the STEM-focused educational toys that dominate the fledgling category today, a future that can offer us everything from the pet-like benefits of companionship and protection to the kind of help with manual or dangerous tasks that Elon Musk has promised for his humanoid domestic servant.

But, while designing any high-tech product can be difficult, creating a category is one of the most notoriously difficult things to do. Like the first Echo speaker, Oculus Rift, and iPhone before it, Astro provides a rare opportunity to witness the birth of a category pioneer. In doing so, we can evaluate what Amazon prioritized for this initial product and some of the seeds it has planted for future iterations. These include:

Bringing forth the familiar 

Astro may not look like any other product Amazon offers. However, much as the Echo brought forth the value of a Bluetooth speaker and the iPhone that of the iPod, Astro brings forth virtually all the benefits of an Echo Show and many of a Ring camera. In fact, the product is something of a bridge between the Echo and Ring ecosystems. But, were Astro to just provide these functions on wheels, that wouldn't represent enough of a step forward to justify category formation.

Indeed, while the iPhone served as an iPod (or, for that matter, a cell phone), that was at best a secondary feature that has decreased in significance over time. Similarly, if one were to focus on what Astro can do at launch in terms of the raw share of functions, they would fall overwhelmingly to things it has inherited from Alexa. However, Amazon already understands the value of Astro as a platform, and is considering an SDK to open the door to functionality that taps into its unique capabilities and potential accessories.

A primary application and market 

It's fair to say that Astro lands far from the vision of the Jetsons' character with which it doesn't share a name: Rosie the autonomous robot maid. Much of that is because of the product's limited ability to physically act on its surroundings. In fact, as I can vouch after testing Astro in my home, much of the engineering work in Astro's navigation has gone into avoiding contact with physical surroundings. Out of the gate, Astro's most compelling application revolves around its roving sentry capabilities. With that focus on security and peace of mind, it capitalizes on the cornerstone of smart home interest.

That application, though, has product implications, including exuding safety and reliability, particularly for a category that, along with AI, has inspired endless betrayals and catastrophes in the fertile imaginations of sci-fi authors and film directors. At no time did Astro feel dangerous or threatening. If anything, its presence was endearing. And, while I might not recommend having an enraged toddler have a go at its periscopic camera, I would say the same about many unprotected sophisticated devices such as an iPhone.

Astro's feature set and price should appeal to forgiving technophiles who accept its privacy implications and can offer spacious rooms for it to navigate. For such users, Astro would almost certainly complement, not substitute for, an intrusion detection system. Ideally, these would be in a ranch house. However, even though there were stairs leading downstairs on the floor where I tried Astro, it didn't have much interest in investigating their precipice, much less somersaulting down them.

An emotional connection 

Emotional connections to products and services can stem from many sources and, as I argued some years ago, can make a difference between how consumers view two companies that have a similar proposition. And, while even helping to secure one's home can help drive positive association, Amazon is clearly looking to have Astro build on the level of emotional connection that some have forged with its voice agents.

These measures are simple today, e.g., the plainly drawn circular eyes on its screen, its personalized greetings, and its R2-D2-like vocalizations. Amazon must tread (or roll) carefully here as the bar for companionship can be higher, or at least more subjective, than potential future functions such as being able to turn off a gas burner or open a refrigerator door. AIs may be years away from routinely acing Turing tests in any circumstance. However, as Google showed us at its last I/O event, we are inching closer to conversations in which all manners of objects can engage in conversations that reveal more about themselves and the world.

Astro didn't change my world, but it did shift my worldview. While its current feature set doesn't match well to my needs, far from spurring an ultimate marketplace verdict, it more likely represents a stake in the ground because Amazon foresees rapid advances on the horizon that will push consumer robots ever closer to the mainstream.


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