Friendly Robot Is a Hands-Free Home Helper

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Cynthia Breazeal, the famed roboticist at MIT’s Media Lab and a pioneer of social robotics, is unveiling her latest creation today. Unlike her previous robots, created for research and used in settings like classrooms and hospitals, her newest robotic device is designed for people to use at home. Breazeal hopes users will find the robot, called Jibo, so fun and friendly that it will become "part of the family."

"Jibo, please introduce yourself," Breazeal says, looking at the little robot next to her during a demo last week in New York City.

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Jibo doesn’t move. She tries again, and this time the robot springs to life, spins its body, blinks its eye, and talks about itself in an excited -- if a bit robotic -- voice.

Breazeal says Jibo is designed as an interactive companion and helper to families, capable of engaging people in ways that a computer or mobile device aren't able to. The secret is not powerful processors or better sensors; it's emotion. Jibo is different from other gadgets because it treats you like a human being, she says. "Emotion is the next wave of this humanized high-touch engagement with technology."

Jibo will come equipped with an initial set of apps, or "skills," as Breazeal calls them, that will allow it to play different "roles." For example, the robot will be able to act as a cameraman, tracking faces and snapping pictures so you can be in the photos. It could also act as an assistant who reminds family members of their schedules, or as a telepresence avatar that helps people connect with each other.

Another application is as a storyteller, Breazeal says. Jibo will be able to tell stories using sound effects, graphics, and movement, "bringing content to life and engaging kids in a playful way."

"Robots are about the autonomy and the partnership and playing the role versus being a tool that I got to pick up and poke at," Breazeal explains. "So it’s not just what it does, it’s how it does it. And the new use cases that that enables."

Breazeal knows that her startup, Jibo Inc., with offices in Weston, Mass., and San Francisco, Calif., can’t explore all of the robot’s possibilities by itself. So it’s opening it up for developers, who’ll be able to create -- and sell -- applications that give Jibo new functionalities, much like the apps we download on our smartphones. (An approach also adopted by another social -- and emotional --robot, Pepper, created by Aldebaran Robotics and SoftBank.)

That’s one of the reasons that she decided to launch Jibo as a crowdfunded campaign. Starting today, the robot is available for pre-order on Indiegogo for US $499 and will ship during the 2015 holiday season. A developer package is available for $599 (it includes a full SDK and access to the Jibo developer program) and will ship in the fall of 2015.

"The purpose of doing the crowdfunding campaign right now is we want to build a community," she says. "We want to engage people who want to have Jibo in their home and those who want to develop for it. We’re early enough in our development cycle that we can take that input and we can be responsive to it."

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Like most crowdfunded projects, Jibo has a cool promotional video demonstrating its possibilities:

But keep in mind that Jibo is not a finished product that’s ready to ship to people’s homes. It’s still, at this point, in its early stages of development.

In fact, I had hoped that the current prototype would be at a more advanced stage. The demo Breazeal showed me last week was based on a set of pre-programmed actions, the robot wasn't really changing its behavior based on interactions with users.

But then again, that's why Breazeal launched the robot as a crowdfunded effort.