Market Spotlight: Toys/Robotics

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What do you picture when you think about a robot? R2-D2? Wall-E? Maybe something a little more like a human? Thanks to advances in AI and speech technology, robots are moving out of the realm of science fiction and into our everyday lives, and they are taking many different shapes and sizes. Of course, robots have been moving into the workplace for years—displacing workers while improving efficiency—but now they are in our homes. We’re all learning to converse with machines for a variety of reasons, whether we find them in the toy box or on the kitchen counter. 

“Humans have never been better primed to welcome robot companions into their lives,” says Dor Skuler, CEO of Intuition Robotics. “We live by our touchscreens and sensor interfaces. Our own innovations have brought artificial intelligence to breathtaking levels. Advances in machine learning, including deep learning, over the last five to 10 years mean that enormous chunks of data, analyzed by new machine learning and other data-science technologies, are brought to bear on many core problems with companion robotics.”

Smart Toys Are Booming

Talking toys are nothing new. Even those of us with a bit of gray in our hair had Teddy Ruxpin to read to us, and our younger siblings had Furby—that adorable little threat to national security that was banned from the Pentagon. But as speech technology, AI, and robotics have improved, so too have the toys kids interact with. According to Juniper Research, global annual smart-toy sales are expected to grow from about $2.8 billion in 2015 to $11.3 billion by 2020. Toy makers are taking notice.

Is your kid begging for a dog but you’re allergic? CHiP, a trainable robotic dog, has you covered. CHiP fetches, comes when called, can navigate around the house, and even barks. Want to reinforce a behavior? Just give CHiP a pat on the head. How you interact with CHiP shapes his behavior, making each dogbot unique. He’ll cost you a cool $200 but never needs to see a veterinarian and won’t run away. (Mechanical dogs have come a long way since Santa brought me a Go Go My Walking Pup for Christmas!) 

On the other end of the spectrum is Siliconic Home’s Smarty, a virtual assistant for kids. Instead of a sleek pod that all but disappears into your home, Smarty is a cute little humanoid device made of blue plastic, but it performs many of the same functions as an Amazon Echo or Google Home. 

Smarty can wake a kid up, remind her about upcoming school deadlines, and help with vocabulary words. Parents can create a list of phone numbers that Smarty is allowed to call. And, of course, it can play music. 

While simple toys are often still the (literal) building blocks of imagination, smart toys are becoming wildly popular. Right now, many of these technologically advanced products for kids are priced out of the reach of many families. Like any other technology, as it becomes more ubiquitous and easier to produce, the price will come down and make smart toys more accessible to more people, helping the market reach that $11.3 billion estimate by 2020.

Robots Move Beyond Playtime and the Assembly Line

“Cheap prototyping components have created a thriving ecosystem that makes it easier and cheaper than ever before to build the hardware for a robot, and the scientific community of human-robot interaction (HRI) has generated important practical guidelines and techniques for all aspects of interaction with users: from design, through motions, to understanding and displaying emotions when necessary,” says Skuler. “With these services now becoming a commodity, companies can utilize them and create sophisticated devices and robots that focus more on an engaging user experience.” And that’s just what Intuition Robotics, and companies like it, have done. 

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