Consumers want useful robots, executive says

Affordability and simplicity are also keys to success, according to KumoTek's founder

Hollywood movies may offer entertainment, but looking to the big screen for consumer robot ideas most likely won't produce profitable devices, a robotics company executive told an industry conference this week.

The robotics industry should instead consider whether a robot will actually solve a problem consumers have, said Matt Fisher, founder and CTO of KumoTek, a robotics engineering and design company in Texas. More collaboration in the industry would also help to generate successful designs, he said.

"The robotics industry traditionally takes a top-down approach," said Fisher, who spoke Thursday during a session at the RoboBusiness Conference in Boston. "The pitfall is, we want to see our product succeed and we're not listening to the consumer."

"We need to be honest with ourselves about what we're building," he said. "Does the public want it?"

Robots with simple designs that run dependable software and help with actual problems will fare well in the market, Fisher said.

"Give people something that is feature-simple. And then over time they can add on, and it becomes a successful product line. We need to start from the ground up. Don't overwhelm people with bells and whistles."

The future of consumer robotics lies with basic technology, like what is found in children's toys, he said. Keeping that principle in mind, Fisher's company is developing a line of robot toys that function with rudimentary electronics.

Like the robot itself, the robot's software must also solve a legitimate problem. Creating applications with a purpose leads to a software platform that can be expanded over time and applied to future robots. Conversely, engineering a robot and then writing software leads to products that don't solve problems or make money, he said.

"The software has to work and is key to success," he said.

Fisher cautioned against flashy and expensive robots. He has seen extravagant consumer devices promise a multitude of tasks and fail to deliver, or complete the assigned tasks but in a poor manner, he said. Weak performances undermine the public's perception of a robot and make the device seem like a toy or gadget.

Consumer robot makers also have to keep prices low, he said.

"Anything over [US]$300, and you'll only get early adopters, and then it will stop," he said. "The public may not be ready with dispensable cash. [There is] a mental barrier of spending [more than] $300 on a robot."

Any robot costing more than a laptop should save lives, be government-funded, have broad public appeal and save a consumer money while making the company a profit, he said.

Fisher acknowledged that some consumer robots have proved financially successful by following a top-down approach. Hanson Robotics' trendy-looking Zeno, designed strictly as a toy, has sold well in Japan and the U.S., he said. But this business model does not always work, he cautioned.

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