With Loomo, Segway takes robotics far from the home

Building off its hoverboard-like MiniPro, the company's first robot for a broad market is packed with sensors but light on applications.
Written by Ross Rubin, Contributor

We have long assumed that robotics would take us far. Now, Segway Niinebot, the latest iteration of the company that pioneered the self-balancing electric scooter, has literally implemented that idea.

Loomo is essentially the head of a robot -- an optimized tablet device with enhanced sound input and output capabilities as well as some nifty imaging capabilities -- grafted on to the body of one of the company's MiniPro scooters.

Laying claim to the distinction of least intimidating Transformer, it can rotate its "head" 90 degrees to provide an ample riding platform providing riders come in under its maximum weight of about 200 pounds.

When facing you, Loomo looks a bit like other mobile robots such as Jibo that roamed CES in January. Like those devices, can capture photos and videos from its relatively low height or play tunes on demand from its beefed-up speaker. It can also be controlled via smartphone app or voice commands in addition to its side-mounted touchpads.

But that's about where the similarity ends. Loomo hasn't been designed for such emerging home robotics tasks as helping kids with homework or patrolling the premises when you're away.

In fact, while Segway says it may at some point integrate Alexa or another generally focused voice agent, the company is focusing on its own interactions now given that it expects the bot to be used predominantly outside the home.

But in these early days, it hasn't imbued Loomo with the ability to ask about any shortcuts to a destination or for recommendations of, say, a restaurant along the way. It doesn't even have cellular capability. However, given that it is part of the Xiaomi family of investments, that may change before long.

If Loomo won't do much to lead you, it's eager to follow. Unlike the Immotor Go I rode last year ,which limits its autonomous travel to a straight line, Loomo can use its front-facing camera to recognize an individual and enter an auto-follow mode. Using the integrated Intel RealSense camera, it can distinguish between the original target and other people. However, it can be fooled by similarly dressed and proportioned people.

On the other hand, its autonomy doesn't extend to finding its way back to a charger, a trick that lowly robotic vacuums have pulled off for years.

Much as the previous year has seen voice agents integrated into all manner of devices, many of which gain nominal benefit from such interaction, Loomo for now remains primarily a transportation device with some intelligent features that show the potential of having access to ambulatory intelligence beyond the home.

But much of that potential lies too far in the future for most consumers. At the start of its Indiegogo campaign today Loomo will have more appeal for developers. The product runs a customized version of Android. Via an SDK, Segway Ninebot plans to open up access to the bot via an SDK that may fill in some of its feature gaps.

In addition to the depth-sensing camera, developers will be able to tap into Loomo's infrared and ultrasonic sensors, a microphone array and textto-speech capabilities. Hardware hackers will also be able to take advantage of an expansion bay in the rear of the device for adding, for example, a second camera.

Loomo will likely follow some of its larger transporter cousins in enterprise applications like surveillance and telepresence with its imaging and machine learning capabilities opening further doors as developers gain experience.


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