Robotics firms tackle issues of control, usability
Smart Home market offers great potential
Published: Aug 31, 2017 06:28 PM Updated: Sep 02, 2017 07:21 AM

The iRobot Roomba 900 Series robot can create visual landmarks in its map to keep track of its location as it cleans, so it knows where it's been and where it has yet to clean. Photo: Courtesy of iRobot Corp

An iRobot Roomba 900 Series robot is showcased at a home. Photo: Courtesy of iRobot Corp


Chris Jones Photo: Courtesy of iRobot Corp

Thanks to the rapid growth of the Internet of Things market, the Smart Home is no longer a distant dream, but a sector that offers unprecedented potential.

Just one remote control can be used to manage all the devices at home, a sleep tracker can tell you if you are healthy or not, and there is even a robot that can help look after your baby. There is a huge catalog of devices you can buy for the smart home, from lights and thermostats to doors and window sensors, environmental or air quality sensors to connect vents for air conditioning as well as all sorts of security monitoring solutions.

According to McKinsey Global Institute's forecast, the Smart Connected Home market is expected to exceed $200 billion by 2025.

However, can a house be called a Smart Home simply because it is decked out with lots of smart devices? The answer is no.

There are growing complexities and usability challenges involved when trying to achieve long-term viability of the Smart Home.

An Accenture study in 2015 reported that 24 percent of respondents believe current smart devices are too complicated to use and 33 percent said ease of use was an important consideration in purchase decisions.

Given the difficulties consumers are having today with only a small number of connected devices, it is difficult to imagine a consumer effectively managing and using hundreds of such devices in an integrated fashion to realize the future smart home. According to Gartner's estimate, a typical family home will contain more than 500 smart devices by 2022.

"The ideal Smart Home should be one that maintains itself and just does the right thing in anticipation of occupant needs," said Chris Jones, vice president of technology at iRobot Corporation, in an exclusive interview with the Global Times recently.

"So, we view the smart home as one that really can deliver a very comfortable experience for consumers in their home, a very convenient experience, provide  improved safety and security in the home, and then also improve energy efficiency in the home," he said.

In Jones' view, iRobot is not an appliance company that also tries to make robots, but a robot company that is always looking for the practical application of those technologies to make a difference in people's lives, and the loop, "sense, think, act" that is constantly running inside a robot. It's sensing the world, it's thinking about "what does that mean?", "what do I need to do about it?" and it translates that into action.

He pointed out the unique and valuable role robots can play in the Smart Home ecosystem of the future and how the company is developing best-in-class mapping and navigating technologies, as well as expanding its portfolio of connected products to pioneer this market.

As a technology firm focused on manufacturing robots since 1990, it is now expanding its business in China, as the country is growing into the largest robot market in the world. In 2016, it set up a commercial office in its Shanghai headquarters.


Q: What is the core value or the use-case of a smart home?

A: To more smartly understand what the behaviors are of that consumer in terms of when are they usually home or not, the smart home could plan accordingly to keep the home comfortable but also balance that with energy efficiency. So, that's kind of the promise of the smart home.

Q: What areas will you compete in with possible players in the smart home ecosystem of the future?

A: I think the area that is really limiting the growth of the smart home is usability.  How do you enable a consumer to practically use all of this technology that's been added to their home? That's a real challenge. Today, you're seeing a lot of small solutions, right? You can do one thing or do this little thing, do this little feature in your home, but no one yet has really provided a solution that allows an entire smart home to just work.

The limitation of the smart home industry is that the smart homes really don't think.

Q: How will the Internet of Things and intelligent smart manufacturing influence the development of robots in the future?

A: Very significantly. As part of our own R&D investments, an important part of that is around artificial intelligence. A lot of our R&D investments continue to build on that capability. What we want to do is build the smartest robot we can, whether it's a cleaning robot or some other robot in the home.

Q: What are the biggest challenges for robotics companies?

A: iRobot is completely focused on the home, so, consumer products for the home. We've been in other industries in the past, but today we're very focused on the home. But I think it applies to companies developing products and all of these industries and it certainly applies to us in building consumer products. Building a robot requires a lot of expertise around integrating electrical, mechanical software components that all have to work very well together.

Q: Would you like to share with us the latest R&D results or the direction that you will be focusing on in these areas?

A: I would use the sensors on the robot to recognize key pieces of furniture, appliances and so on in the home. That's something that we're working toward, to give our robots the best understanding of the environment they're in, so that they can do the best job that they can do.