Earlier this week, news broke that Amazon is reportedly building a domestic robot. The robot’s codename of “Vesta” is the Roman god for hearth, house and family. Ironically, it was earlier this month on the IoT Podcast that we debated robots as a supplement to the smart home.
Obviously without any details on Amazon’s plans, we can only guess what possible uses Vesta will have. But I think that at least one of them will be similar to what I said I wanted: On the podcast, I proposed grafting a battery-powered smart assistant device on a Roomba for mobility.
That was just my little project idea because it would provide Alexa (or Google Assistant, for that matter) more context in terms of my presence and would alleviate the need to have smart speakers in every room of the house. And although Amazon would love to sell you an Echo device for every room in the house, in the long term, that may not be the preferred solution for everyone.
There are two pieces to this puzzle and Amazon actually has them both. It has a cloud-based digital assistant and also valuable experience in creating robots: The company uses its own in Amazon warehouses. By the end of 2016, the company used 45,000 robots across 20 fulfillment centers, which is no small feat.
Of course, neither you nor I want a warehouse robot in our actual house. So Amazon will have to adjust its expertise to create a domestic robot. And the warehouse robots are only 16 inches tall, although they can move pallets weighing nearly 700 pounds. So maybe Vesta is more of a roving Echo than a robot that can fold laundry or make your coffee.
I’m OK with that and here’s why. I’d rather have one smart speaker that also has a camera than speakers and cameras — think Echo Show and Echo Spot — in every room of the house. If that one device can either follow me around the house or be within earshot, I don’t need multiple devices that basically do the same thing. And I can send a camera-enabled device away if that device is a robot.
There would be added benefits if Vesta has a camera, which I assume it will since it can reportedly self-navigate around rooms. Yes, that can be done with ultrasonic or other sensors, but it makes more sense to have a camera for several reasons.
First, the robot could see who is where in the house. That kind of presence detection is what I’ve been looking for in the smart home for several years. By knowing that someone is in a room, the robot could maintain the proper HVAC and lighting controls automatically. A motion detector can handle this, but not as well: It can’t tell the difference between me and my wife, for example, and she likes the room temperature and lighting set up a different way than I do.
Secondly, an Alexa powered robot with computer vision can hook directly into Amazon’s storefront in a way no Echo can do today.
Imagine Vesta scanning the pantry to see what food staples you’re low on: Your shopping list can be auto-created to a degree. Or Vesta could simply order off that shopping list from Amazon as you’re running low on certain dry goods, drinks and supplies. And if Vesta had the ability to open your fridge, it could see what other groceries you might need. Auto-ordered home delivery from Whole Foods, anyone?
It’s too early to say what Vesta will do or be. But it’s not too early to realize that nearly everything Amazon does has a tie-in to removing barriers from you and the goods you shop for.
I know from our podcast conversation that Stacey wants a robot with arms. I can live without the arms for now. But give me a mobile robot that can see, communicate and provide information — either actively or passively — and I’m in.