Monday, January 30, 2012

The Future of Chinese-manufactured Apple Products

China's economic miracle has lifted countless millions of supremely poor people out of poverty. But this progress has come at a price. The Apple Corporation's experience in manufacturing its popular iPhones, iPods and iPads in China - recently described in the N.Y. Times - has subjected many of those making Apple products to unsafe and unfair working conditions.

Apple has been good for China. It has provided hundreds of thousands of jobs for the 300 to 400 million Chinese anxious to leave their rural, impoverished existence and move to a city where they can get a paying job. When these migrant workers get that job they send home 30-50% of their earnings, and then they and their families back home buy, amongst other things, electronic consumer products like cellphones, smartphones and iPods.

Many of these jobs have been created by the Apple phenomenon whereby Apple keeps making trend-setting products through new and novel uses of technological achievement.

People want to buy their iPhones and iPads. Apple just had it's biggest ever quarter: 37M iPhones, 15M iPads, $46 billion revenue. Plus, as the economy has started to improve, people have more disposable income and are willing to spend even more for Apple products - 60% of which are manufactured and assembled in China, much of that by one large contract manufacturer: Foxconn.
Foxconn - whose parent company is Hon Hai Precision Electronics, a publicly traded Taiwanese company (TPE:2317) - is the hub in the center of this wheel of motion. It is in their factories in China where some of the components are built and much of the final assembly takes place. As recently reported by the New York Times, CBS, NPR, various watchdog groups and even an off-Broadway play, these factories are havens for worker mistreatment, suicides, unsafe conditions, low pay, and even child labor.

Suicides reached a peak in 2010 and Foxconn implemented solutions, including protective barriers, hotlines and counseling to help prevent further incidents. No suicides were reported in 2011.

Unsafe factory conditions, particularly working with toxins (polishing resins and cleaners) and dusts from metal shavings and other materials were cited as another example. Two serious explosions involving improperly ventilated aluminum shavings occurred in 2011 killing 20 and injuring 50. Subsequently, better ventilation systems and the replacement of workers with robotic polishing, sanding and spraying machines is beginning to take place.

Pay has raced to keep up with discontent and has risen from $0.25 per hour to $0.50 and then $1.00 and now, in many cases, $2.00 per hour. But in this excerpt from a report by a labor rights group, China Labor Watch, one can see the underlying problems:
The minimum wage in many factories does not meet the living costs of its workers. Workers cannot earn a living wage from normal working hours alone, and must work excessive overtime hours in order to earn enough money to survive. At one factory [not Foxconn] for example, workers’ minimum monthly wage was $138 in October 2010. There was a $6 deduction for dormitory accommodations, a $40.50 deduction for food and utilities fees, and a $15.30 deduction for social insurance, which left $76.20. If workers have other expenses or financial responsibilities, such as vocational classes or financial support of their parents (one of the main reasons migrant workers seek work in cities), it would be impossible to meet their living costs with only $76.20. In this situation, workers find themselves with no other option but to work excessive overtime. 
Furthermore, many factories require workers to complete a fixed term of employment before they become eligible for a salary increase. Some factories required workers to complete at least a three month probation period and an additional three month evaluation before becoming eligible for a salary increase. Other factories require a year or longer before workers are eligible for an annual bonus. The difficulty, lengthy terms, and sometimes unpredictability involved in gaining a salary increase and bonus further reinforces workers’ dependence on overtime in order to earn a living wage.
Interviews by the press and various workers rights groups indicate that the main form of discontent is pressure and punishment from long hours at monotonous but intricate work in less than ergonomically friendly postures. 60-72 hour  6-day work weeks are the norm. The pressure comes from the demands to produce more, work more and complain less with punishment for infringements meted out in the form of financial fines, push-ups, public humiliation and attitudinal retraining classes.

Crowded dormitories, cafeterias, long and regimented lines, low pay and condescending contracts, have all contributed to a high turnover -- 20-30% at last report. This perpetuates the cycle of employing unskilled migrants, training them in factory work, housing them, and getting them onto the factory floor and assembly line as quickly as possible.

Apple CEO Tim Cook was outraged at the N.Y. Times. Two recent stories in the N.Y. Times were followed by pieces on NPR and CBS: (1) In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad and (2) How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work. He considered the articles to be an offensive pseudo exposé. In an internal e-mail message to select Apple employes, Cook wrote:
We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain. Any accident is deeply troubling and any issue with working conditions is cause for concern. Any suggestion that we don't care is patently false and offensive to us. As you know better than anyone, accusations like these are contrary to our values. It's not who we are. 
For the many hundreds of you who are based at our suppliers' manufacturing sites around the world, or spend long stretches working there away from your families, I know you are as outraged by this as I am.
Foxconn, like many of the other suppliers, has denied many of the accusations and responded to periodic audits by saying that they've made or are implementing the legal changes suggested.

To be fair, one must keep in mind that China's internal labor laws are newly emerging and are different from ours - their minimum age and wage are different too. Their management style is significantly different as well.

The N.Y Times articles failed to note what may be Foxconn's most important long-term remedy to problems with its workforce: its plans to deploy one million robots. Foxconn appears to actually be ahead of the news cycle in this instance. Early in 2010 they realized that there would be increased demand for their products and services - particularly Apple products - and that they just couldn't handle more workers. Instead, they decided to deploy 1 million robots as part of their solution. Mid-2011 they launched an R&D facility and robot manufacturing factory in Taiwan to design, develop and produce those 1 million factory robots. Recently they confirmed their intentions to replace but not necessarily lay off 500,000 workers with those 1 million robots thereby moving those workers up the skill-level ladder to more experienced and higher paying jobs.

By any reasonable definition of product liability law, Apple products are Apple's products regardless of whether Apple subcontracts some or much of the effort. Apple is liable for any product failures that injure buyers. Consequently Apple is responsible for the actions of their suppliers to the extent that they are working on Apple's products. Thus it comes down to this: what can and should Apple and other companies do when their sub-contractors are not holding to acceptable Western standards?

Here are my two suggestions:
  1. Apple could insist that dull, dirty and dangerous tasks be automated with robotics and other processes that eliminate these jobs and, more importantly, reduce the areas where injury and discontent are likely to occur.
  2. The N.Y. Times articles implied that Apple monitors its contractors' costs and squeezes their profit margins to the lowest level possible and, when that happens, it becomes a major factor in these contractors subjecting their employees to unsafe and unfair working conditions in order to meet Apple's price. If, on the other hand, Apple provided additional profits to their suppliers but stipulated that those profits be passed down to their workers in the form of additional funds for safety, better work-hours, automation and higher pay, everyone would benefit and the Apple culture would be preserved. Some might argue that this solution doesn't address the competitive pressures of the marketplace. Apple's recent quarterly 28% net profit results - and their $92 billion cash hoard - suggest that, regardless of market pressures, Apple does have some ability to share their profits where they will do the most good for long-term growth, the welfare of their sub-contract workers, shareholder value, AND global public relations.
And a solution from the folks at Change.org - a petition to Apple to protect workers making iPhones in Chinese factories. As of this posting there are already 157,000 signatures!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Stocks of Robot Manufacturers Still Recovering

Click image to enlarge

The latest ROBO-STOX™ chart - covering the four year period from 12/31/2007 to 12/31/2011 - shows that worldwide stock performance of robotic stocks over the last four years has been disappointing for investors.
  • Robotic industrials are still down 28% from their 2007 highs and did poorer than the Dow Jones Industrial Average which is also down 8.5% from 2007.
  • Service robotic stocks are down 15% from 2007 while the NASDAQ is down just 2.5% -- better than the industrials, and showing signs of steady improvement, but still hasn't regained their 2007 highs.
  • Industrials took a big fall from their 2007 highs with the doubly whammy of the collapse of auto sales and bankruptcies of auto companies. 2009 saw hesitation and some gains, and then a small rise in the latter part of 2010 was blown away with the Japanese disasters, Thailand floods and EU economic turmoil. Thus industrial robot stocks are still down 28% even though business is good.
  • The few publicly-traded service robotics companies fall into three main sectors: medical, defense/security and a mixture of academic and consumer niche products. Medical robotic stocks are booming; defense/security stocks are holding steady; and the remainder are all over the place.
  • Industrial robot companies represent 62% of the $9.3 billion robotics industry revenue; service is 38% of which 75% was for military/defense (data provided by International Federation of Robotics in their 2011 reports and press releases).
Publicly-traded robot vendors represent less than 20% of the total list of companies in the industry. Further reducing that number of stock opportunities is the fact that in many cases, robotics is not the primary business of the company. ABB (ABBN:VX) is an example - only 1/3 of their income is derived from robotics or robotic related activities; the same is true for many of the public companies, particularly those that provide drones for defense and underwater ROVs.

2012  is likely to be another volatile year for robot vendors, public and privately-held.
  • In the industrial sector, Foxconn (2317:TW) has confirmed that their new robot manufacturing facility in Taiwan will be producing about 1 million robots for deployment in their factories in China starting this year and continuing into 2013 and 2014. Foxconn's choice to build their own robots will have a major impact on robot manufacturers ABB (ABBN:VX), Fanuc (FANUY) and Kuka (KU2:GR) - companies that have manufacturing facilities in China or nearby and were anticipating selling to Foxconn.
  • Foxconn has not said whether or when they will begin selling their new line of robots to other companies. 
  • Medical robot vendors outside of the U.S. will find much demand for their products which are likely to be unhampered by FDA and other regulatory bodies, eg, Mazor (MZOR:IT), an Israeli company with a well-received robotic device for spine surgery. In the U.S., competition and growth is thwarted not only by the slow and costly FDA approval process but also by Intuitive Surgical (of da Vinci fame) (ISRG) and InTouch Health (venture-funded; not yet public), both of which have wide-ranging patents.
  • Defense/security robot and unmanned vehicle vendors (air, land and sea) worldwide will find their products in much demand even though overall defense spending is going down.
  • Robot vacuum vendors like iRobot (IRBT), LG and Samsung, are finding that world demand for this type of robot cleaner is growing - but so is the competition. At CES 2012 there were 6 other Korean, Chinese and European competitors to the big 3.
  • Robotic lawnmowers are beginning to sell as their price comes down to less than $1,000 in the U.S. and less than $2,000 in Europe.
  • Service robot companies that focus on academia will find much competition and lower budgets for the year.
  • Engineering and consulting firms that provide automation integration services will start to feel pinched as robot manufacturers provide robots which are more intuitive and easier to train and integrate - the very reasons that caused there to be a need for outside integrator firms in the first place.
Consequently, for the robotics industry, all the ancillary businesses and all their stocks, I see 2012 as a year similar to 2011 (hopefully without the natural disasters of 2011), with bouts of sharp volatility but minimal upward growth.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Divergent Views on Communicating with Machines

Steve Ballmer, CEO, Microsoft and Dr. Dieter Zetsche, Chairman, Mercedes Benz
Much of what I saw at CES 2012 was about products being upgraded to “smart” under the premise that smart connectivity enables consumer convenience. It was definitely on the minds of most of those attending. That's why the CES keynote speeches were so well attended: they were slated to offer insight into the near-term future. But this year there were competing visions of that future. The industry leaders seemed to have divergent approaches to the development and marketing of "smart."
  • CES is a show focused on near-term product releases… those that will be launched later this year, in time for Christmas, and into next year. Throughout CES, almost all of the consumer products were demonstrating smarter products – smarter in the sense that they are connected to the Internet or a local net and have sensors or artificial intelligence that gather and process data and make decisions based on that information.
  • The Apple iPad, with it's multi-touch capability, has already changed our expectations as to how we interact with our computers, tablets and phones. And Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Kinect are leading us on to even newer ways -- smart ways of interaction between users and their devices.… all to add value to the product by providing convenience or entertainment to the buyer.
  • One of the most interesting areas of CES was focused on Digital Health - where one could easily see benefits from sensors and smart apps providing data that affects consumers. Digital Health was an area packed with healthcare inventions and eager young inventors, and the many new products and apps epitomized our "nurse in your purse" future.
To make my point I must first describe three seemingly disparate events:

Ford and NPR Press Conference:
Ford and NPR held a joint press conference to launch NPR’s new app which runs within the infotainment system (called Sync AppLink) on new Ford cars. NPR has the 1st and 2nd rankings of Morning Edition and All Things Considered among U.S. news radio programs. Their new app gives Ford drivers voice control over their NPR programming. In a menu-driven series of commands, a driver can call up the latest news of the hour, select a live stream of his or her favorite station, or access programs or topics from NPR’s large library of podcasts by using a set of simple commands like “hourly news” or “stations” or “programs” followed by the name of the program. The resulting selection may be playing on the FM band, streaming live, or streaming from the archives of NPR over the Internet. It could take as many as five commands to get the desired program. Underneath the Ford Sync system is Microsoft’s operating system. Executives from Ford and NPR, when asked about future improvements to the system, said that a more free-form natural language voice recognition system would be ideal but is not yet capable and reliable enough to work with safety and convenience in a car. But think how Siri would get to the same program in just one short sentence: “Find and play today’s ‘All Things Considered.’”

Keynote Speech by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer:
Shortly after this presentation I went to the Steve Ballmer Microsoft Keynote Speech. Bizarre is a charitable word to describe this off-putting, fever-pitched yet unexciting sales pitch for everything Microsoft. Very little news, less information about new product introductions, and much puffery about the new Windows 8 Operating System coming sometime this year. Not a word about robotics even though Microsoft supports and sells a robotic operating system. Ballmer presented Windows 8 and Metro – the same systems that are limiting NPR’s app by not having a capable and reliable free-form voice recognition system similar to Apple’s Siri – as the cat’s meow; the very highest tech and best you can buy anywhere. I actually felt bad from the presentation - to see such an unappealing sales pitch while omitting Microsoft's vision for the future. [MS announced that this would be Ballmer's and their last keynote at CES - a fact which underscores how the shift toward mobile devices has kept MS re-allocating talent and resources to adapt.] As an aside, Bloomberg Businessweek Magazine just did a cover story about Ballmer turning the company into a more relevant powerhouse with cooler technology and also a serious player in cloud computing. In that article, Businessweek describes what I saw: “For many, the lasting impression of Ballmer is the sweaty, breathless, booming clown seen in countless YouTube clips [or in my case, in person at CES]. He plays the cheerleader in an apparent effort to prove that no one can top his love of Microsoft – and he succeeds cringingly well.” The article goes on to describe Ballmer as pretty normal except in public presentations. Still, I left that night without any new information and with a headache and bad feeling.

Keynote Speech by Mercedes Chairman Dieter Zetsche:
The next morning I went to see Dr Dieter Zetsche present Mercedes' first-ever CES keynote speech, an inspiring, informative and well thought out “big picture” focus on the next generation of connected cars. When asked whether cars were going to become autonomously-driven commodities built to carry around consumer products, he responded that Mercedes builds cars that people want to drive and that will continue – but when the traffic or the road is boring, there will be a switch to turn on a temporary autopilot. Zetsche, in his interesting and responsible presentation, described the auto industry and Mercedes cars in terms of freedom and included new offerings within each of five “freedoms.”
  1. Freedom not only from the horses, buses and trains of the past, but from the limits of distance, from the tethers of things local, to distancing yourself from your parents.
  2. Freedom of time via connectivity so that seamless updates are pushed to in-vehicle communication systems negating the need to bring your car in for system updates. Their new MBrace2 system regularly updates and monitors their cars but also connects today’s digital lifestyle into a digital drive style.
  3. Freedom of speech to communicate with your car in the most safe and expeditious manner. The current iteration of MBrace2 has a much enhanced (but not yet freeform) voice recognition system and in many instances the system will be proactive, eg, choosing to not answer phone calls or read messages at those times when the driver is fully occupied with hazardous driving situations.
  4. Freedom of energy – where Zetsche described new hydrogen-based fuel packs just waiting for the national (political) infrastructure to support them.
  5. Freedom of information where car-to-car communication can provide alerts about road hazards and conditions by taking advantage of the already present in-car virtual private network system and link.
All three of these presentations occurred before the doors for CES opened, and when I walked the massive exhibition space, those visions peppered what I saw with what I believed to be the immediate future in mobility, communication and apps. It is clear to me that despite Mr. Ballmer's sales pitch to buy today's systems and products because they were great, free form voice recognition (a la Siri) is the future of communication with our machines and "smart" is the pathway we are following to that end goal.

The most advanced manner of communicating with smart products is by voice and gesture. Today’s technology is menu-driven (like the NPR example) but the future is free-form and natural (think IBM’s Watson or Apple’s Siri). Hence the flurry of acquisitions into the language processing space: Apple’s acquisition of Siri; Google just bought CleverSense; Aldebaran recently purchased Karotz. New startups of note in this arena include True Knowledge and their Siri-like product Evi.  Nuance (of Dragon Dictate fame) is already established in this arena. Nuance voice processing is repackaged and used by many car companies for their in-car systems including both Ford and Mercedes.

It appeared to be an afterthought in Ballmer’s presentation (Microsoft has been slow to react to it's popularity and multiple uses), but Microsoft’s Kinect voice and gesture recognition device was the wonder of 2011 and seen in many non-Microsoft boothes at the 2012 show. Hacked from its Xbox gaming origins, it provides a low-cost alternative to expensive LIDAR and collision avoidance systems, and all sorts of other applications.  It is a wonderful invention that other companies are hacking and incorporating into their products. PrimeSense, the Israeli inventor of the Kinect device and it's software, has been doing a booming business selling the device for non-gaming applications, research and who knows what else.

Consequently, it was easy to see that at CES 2012 the path to the next level of "smart" products is through the use of better communication with those products - gesture and voice recognition, and natural language, to command and control them – just like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible!

Monday, January 16, 2012

CES 2012 and Consumer Robotics: Informative yet confusing... and bad food!


CES 2012 was a mammoth display of the trend toward smart, connected devices for every form of consumer activity: toys, appliances, entertainment, health, mobility, etc. More than 20,000 new products were launched at this year’s CES and a large portion of them could be considered "smart."

“Smart” (robotic-like) products profess to add value, assure safety, and provide convenience through connectivity... claims that in many cases are true, particularly with in-car infotainment systems.

3,100 exhibitors, 1.86 million sq ft of exhibition space, 153,000 attendees of which 34,000 were international and only one good food stand (Nathan’s hot dogs – you can’t ruin a Nathan’s hot dog). Massive crowding, slow moving, loud, extravagant and wonderful. Thin TVs – so thin they looked like they couldn’t stand up by themselves without bending – 3D with and without glasses, projectors, smart appliances, and apps for everything from TVs to refrigerators to scales.

Consumer robotics represented a very small part of CES but had the same combination of glitz, glamour, marvelous stuff, misrepresentation, uninspiring products and hidden gems, just like the rest of CES. Robotics Trends hosted a Robotics Tech Zone but the action was well beyond their purview because many of the companies wanted to emphasize their consumer orientation instead of highlighting the robotic.

Romibo
One of the most interesting areas was focused on Digital Health - where one could easily see benefits from sensors and smart apps providing data for the cloud to process and selectively inform doctors or users of the results, and progress over time. The highlight of the area was Life Technologies $150,000 Ion Proton Genetic Sequencer, which, by the end of the year, will be able to sequence an entire human genome for about $1,000 in a few hours. Digital Health was also the only area where research was shown and where the NSF/Carnegie Mellon University Quality of Life Technology booth was located, an area packed with healthcare inventions and eager young inventors. Few fell under the robotics umbrella (most were digital apps and devices) except these three:
  1. Romibo, a do-it-yourself robot for therapy, education and play.
  2. PerMMA, a personal mobility and manipulation appliance for power wheelchair users.
  3. Myomo, rehabilitation robotics and interactive gaming systems for stroke victim rehab.
Certainly the most publicity went to Tosy Robotics, a Vietnamese manufacturer of robotic and high-tech toys, for the launch of  their new mRobo, a transformer-type boom-box entertainment robot with a two-hour meet-and-greet by teen heartthrob Justin Bieber.

Tosy also showed their other robotic toys: DiscoRobo, a dance to the beat with lights toy, and Sket-Robo, a robot that draws.

Cubelets, $160, by Modular Robotics, had a small booth and a big hit for their educational robot construction kit. These magnetic blocks can be snapped together to make an endless variety of robots with no programming and no wires. Since each cube has unique functions, you can build robots that drive around on a tabletop and respond to light, sound and temperature.

Parrot, a French manufacturer of hands-free wireless devices for cars and phones, was the hit of CES 2010 with their AR.Drone, a quadcopter with two cameras that is driven from an iPhone or iTouch. This year they upgraded the camera to enable hi-def video, improved their software for still and video capture, and added a range of games and customization accessories... all shown at a huge outdoor booth at CES.

iRobot launched their Roomba, Scooba, Verro and Looj vacuums, floor washers, pool cleaners and gutter cleaning robots at previous CES's, but at this CES they only had office visits for demos and marketing where they were also showing off their AVA concept robot and promoting their partnership with InTouch Health, a provider of telepresence collaboration for doctors, nurses, paramedics and patients and a place where iRobot's lower cost AVA robots could be armed with InTouch Health's hospital experiences and enable the resulting systems to be available to a larger audience.

More than 7 million robot vacuum cleaners have been sold thus far with real competition for iRobot showing up recently with a flurry of similar cleaners - all displayed at CES:
Look-alikes: (from left to right): Techko Maid, Agait, Ecovacs, xRoboticlebo and Ottoro
iRobot Roomba, LG RoboKing, Samsung Tango
The big news is that both Samsung and Ecovacs (above) offer a self-emptying dustbin option.
But LG and Samsung entered the arena, and, with their large consumer client base, vast manufacturing and marketing resources, and an array of add-on features, has been selling their vacuums in Asia and Europe; not yet in the US. iRobot should feel their presence very soon.

Another consumer products manufacturer (of home theater systems), South Korean Moneual, also sells a robot vacuum and a more interesting $1,000 home mobile air filter / security device. The mobile air filter is also designed as a safety system for the elderly, it connects with a wrist band that can detect a fall and can call for help if one occurs.
A skinless Pleo showing it's complex innards
Pleo, the baby robotic dinosaur, was represented by both the seller (Innvo Labs) and the manufacturer (Jetta Co. Ltd.) that reincarnated the old bankrupt company, and was showing the new Pleo rb (reborn), with accessories and software enhancements.

Amongst the pseudo robotic products were three which act as a pedestal for the camera and video functions of iPhones and swivel or have wheels or tracks to move as wirelessly directed:

  1. Xybotyx, a Colorado start-up, is launching a $111 wheeled platform and app for your iPhone that lets you drive your phone wirelessly.
  2. Swivl by Satarii, is a $159 stationary platform for your iPhone camera or video. It swivels to follow you or can be remote controlled.
  3. Romo by Romotive, is a $99 tracter-like iPhone holder which can stream video to your PC and also dance to music on your iPhone.
Karotz, by Violet (a subsidiary of Aldebaran, the builder of the Nao robot), announced the launch of their Karotz "intelligent internet companion" into the U.S. market with a $99 special price for the rabbit and 30% off all accessories. Ideal for learning how to develop apps with voice recognition and Internet connectivity, and now with Aldebaran stewardship, this interesting little device may hold a key to the future of human-robot communication.

Other vendors under the robotic umbrella included:

(from left to right): Windoro, Sphero, Ladybug, Mantarobot, Paro, Crawler
  • Windoro, from Ilshim Global, a window washing device.
  • Sphero, by Orbotix, a robotic ball controlled from your phone.
  • Ladybug, by JS-Robotics, a bug-like mobile device with collision avoidance sensors.
  • Mantaro telepresence robot, a mobile Skype platform using your own iPhone or iPad.
  • Paro, the therapeutic furry seal-like bot for hospitals and eldercare.
  • Crawler, by Topy Industries, an experimental tractor-like base for search and rescue.
Not exactly robotic, but for prototyping and DIY'ers, there were three 3D printers of note: Makerbot announced their new $1,750 two-color 3D printer, Essential Dynamics showed their $3,000 Imagine Printer that prints with a whole host of materials, including food, chocolates, silicone, cheese, epoxy, organics, etc., and the Cube from Cubify which offers both a $1,300 3D printer and also a service for those that just want to send their designs in and get back the finished product.

So there you have it -- 25+ robot vendors focused on consumer products -- less than 1% of CES -- and perhaps only one or two to rave about. Maybe next year....

Monday, January 2, 2012

Is 2012 The Year That Robot Applications Take Root?

By Frank Tobe, Editor/Publisher, The Robot Report

Tell us what apps you want.




In July of 2008, the app store concept was launched by Apple and it has dramatically changed the mobile industry. Over 1.2 billion apps were downloaded between Christmas and New Year according to Flurry Analytics. That's about 60 percent higher than every week of December before Christmas, and marks the largest number of apps ever downloaded in a single week.

Robot app stores are now beginning to happen as well and visions of apps for tele-robotic safety and surveillance pop into mind, or light domestic duties, or…? My imagination runs wild at the thought and I imagine these new apps being easy to use, having multiple functions and a low cost.

But that is then and now is now. At present there are three significantly different approaches to an app store for robots (although additional “stores” are in the planning stage and many existing stores are making arrangements to expand beyond their own boundaries (like iRobot’s online store and Willow Garage's application chooser)):
  1. MyRobots, by Canadian RobotShop, has opened a combination app store and online environment to permit robotics products to be monitored and updated seamlessly as well as providing a Cloud repository for applications that run from the Cloud instead of the robot itself. MyRobots’ slogan is “Connect your robots; reap the benefits.” The online monitoring aspect of MyRobots is similar to the MyMotoman Remote Monitoring Service initiated my Yaskawa Motoman America in August.
  2. Robots App Store, by San Francisco serial entrepreneur Elad Inbar, is developing their store to be an online marketplace for selling apps and also providing developers their own sales portal. Robots App Store, in addition to attempting to trademark the hyphenated words “Robot-app”, has a wonderfully informative info-graphic explaining the need and market for robot apps. What it doesn’t explain is how the process will be different than what most of us have come to expect when buying apps from Apple’s App Store. It involves tinkering with development tools and operating system platforms – a turnoff for all but the most avid hobbyist.
  3. RoboEarth, an EU public-private consortium, is using the Internet to create a giant open source network and database repository that can be accessed and updated by robots around the world. Focused more on academia and industrial applications, RoboEarth speeds up robot learning and adaption in complex tasks and can execute tasks that were not explicitly planned for when the robot was designed.
Service robotics – as differentiated from industrial or defense/security/space robotics - needs to provide inexpensive and efficient assistance to humans to be profitable in the consumer marketplace and emerge as a serious industry. We already have vacuum robots and adaptive cruise control bots, but there are thousands of other possible applications. Entertainment, embedded systems, eldercare and home assistance are certain to be amongst the first groups to benefit as the service robotics industry materializes.

There are two different approaches to providing those services:
C3P0
The Ultimate Humanoid Robot
  1. A universal robotic tool that will be able to perform all the tasks we ask it to do, including social communication - a robot like C3P0. This is the goal of humanoid robots. At this time, humanoid robots are costly, difficult to control, slow and intrusive. Although human-robot communication is part of the lure, and there is much progress in that area, we are at least five years away from devices that not only speak but understand. IBM’s Watson and Apple’s Siri are proving that it can be done but their software isn’t yet available to front-end robotic applications and there is, at present, little comparable in the robotics world (although the recent ABC Nightline interview of Hanson Robotics’ Philip Dick robot shows there is serious ongoing development). Even when the two-way communication aspect is further developed and made available to roboticists, it will be many more years until the goal of a C3P0-like sophisticated humanoid robot will be ready.

  2. A more near-term and progressive solution is to forego universality and design specific devices that provide limited, task-specific means to communicate and complete specific tasks… think Roomba.
Certainly #2 has more near-term promise and is where most of the market is focused for the rest of this decade. As service robots begin to meet the four core criteria of low cost, low intrusiveness, safety and modularity – which is happening almost daily with technology changes – an incredible number of opportunities for service robot apps can be foreseen. The key will be to make them practical, affordable and acceptable by humans as part of their day-to-day life.

Robots App Store:



At discussions with Elad Inbar, CEO of Robots App Store, I asked about the size of the marketplace and was surprised to find that there are 14 million service robots out there now, and it’s estimatited that by the end of 2014 there will be 24 million. If only 15% of them were able to buy two apps at an average price of $9.99, that’s $72 million in revenue. If they each bought five apps instead of two, the figure would be $180 million. If 20% purchased five apps it would be a $¼ billion business. How real and applicable those figures are depends on many complex variables: willingness of the buyer to tinker, quality of the apps, flexibility of the robots, price, disposable income, etc. In fact, apps for robots with an Apple or Android front end will not be available in the Robots App Store but will onlybe available through the Apple (or Android) App Store – which limits the market metrics… an example of this Apple exclusivity is the hundreds of thousands of Parrot’s AR.Drone quadcopters.

Regardless of the metrics, the process of developing and sharing apps can provide a giant leap toward rejuvenating the robots we have and teaching the audience (the buyers) that they can get what they want from their robot(s). Thus the buyer becomes more educated and demanding and the producers less capricious -- and more profitable.

From an infographic by Robots App Store showing possible app prices for various robots
Inbar’s Robots App Store is “focused solely on the personal and service robots marketplace because “industrial robots are very limited in their functionality… not to mention that they are oriented to quickly repeat the same tasks 24/7 unlike personal and service robots that can be extended to virtually everything! I believe in the consumers market – as they will grow like a hockey-stick!”

When I asked what kind of apps we will see once the store opens, Elad said, “We have more than 100 approved robotic developers working on apps for Romba, Pleo, AIBO, NAO, DARwin and others arranged in categories like Entertainment (dances, etc.), Story Telling (for kids), Utilities (like home search engines), Tools (like face recognition and such) and many others.”

Finally, I asked about the mechanics of porting an app or game from one robot to another. “ROS by Willow Garage, Gostai, URBI and others are trying to build a standard open platform OS that will run across all robots. We, as a marketplace, don’t take sides in this battle. We are serving every robot, ever developer, and every OS. But surely we’ll have to take sides one day when the critical mass will decide which is the widely spread and used OS…. Personally I believe that ROS is in the best position to become the de-facto standard and I personally love to work with their code. It is easy, simple and their libraries can be ported quickly between different robots – a huge advantage for every robot apps developer.”

MyRobots:



The goal for MyRobots is to get all robotic platforms to collaborate and operate together (regardless of their operating system) via the use of Cloud robotics. Although like other stores MyRobots will sell downloadable apps too, their main interest is to develop applications that will run on the Cloud thereby freeing computation time and resources on the robot and will make a single app compatible with many different robotic platforms.

Says MyRobot’s Mario Tremblay:
Cloud Robotics is the application of the cloud computing concept to robots. This means using the Internet to augment the robots capabilities by off-loading computation and providing services on demand. Being connected to the cloud also helps robots to collaborate with other machines, smart objects and humans. Through this collaboration, robots transcend their physical limitations and become more useful and capable since they can delegate parts of their tasks to more suitable parties. By combining increased communication capabilities to the ability and flexibility of running and storing part of their intelligence (i.e. software, behaviors and apps) on the MyRobots infrastructure, smart objects and robots become augmented and constitute a new and revolutionary concept for the future of robotic intelligence: Cloud Robotics.

RoboEarth:


RoboEarth is an EU-funded consortium of educators, research facilities and corporations working together to provide a world-wide-web for robot applications. RoboEarth, in development for the last two years, can be seen as a giant network and database repository where robots share information and learn from each other about their behavior and environment thereby showing a better way of robot collaboration and information sharing. RoboEarth’s premise is to out-source application development by tapping creativity and experience from wherever they can. Further, they believe (as do I) that more apps sold equates to more robots sold. Quoting Markus Waibel:
The central beauty of the App Store idea is that it enables a feedback cycle: The more devices (phones/robots) you sell, the more lucrative the app store becomes for 3rd party developers to program new apps. And the more new apps, the more devices you sell. In my opinion, robotics does not yet have critical mass to jump start this at the present time.
RoboEarth is fast becoming a large shared repository for maps, object models, task descriptions, robot models, semantic relations, probabilistic relations and “action recipes” (apps) within the global academic community. It remains to be seen whether the big robot manufacturers will embrace the technology for their products.

One unintended consequence of RoboEarth’s efforts may be within the used robots marketplace. Imagine the financial gain if an older, unused robot is rejiggered to have new equipment as well as easy to train software to put the robot back to work on new projects. Another possible beneficiary is the end user who will be less likely to retain an intergrator/consulting service if the robot can handle ongoing changes on its own.

The ultimate goal of RoboEarth is to enable robots to share and store what they discover about the world on their own Internet.
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As a personal aside, I live in a rural area outside of a medium-sized city. 4G LTE is planned for 2012-2013 for the city but not my area and I have to pay for a very unreliable T1 line to my office. It’s hard to imagine having a service robot doing its thing in my world while relying on the Cloud (as represented by my T1). Maybe the concept will grow on me with time but right now I’m wary and a bit afraid of the consequences.
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What do you want from a robot app store? Let’s compile a long list of “wants” and send them off to these app stores and see whether they can get them for us. Why should we wait to see if our app magically appears in their store? Let’s ask for what we want. Send them to me and I’ll combine them all and send them off to the stores.

Here’s what I would like:
  • For my old Pleo, anything that makes it do things it doesn’t already do.
  • For my AR.Drone, a programmable camera shoot over a grid that I draw onscreen from a starting point where I place the drone.
  • For my little iSobot, a complicated routine of fetch, grab and return.
  • And for my new Swivl, something sexy where it follows my girlfriend around the room and refocuses as the distance changes.
But I also want to buy a used two-armed Yaskawa Motoman and put it to work in my workshop doing ad hoc tasks. I’d love to be able to add a hardware component add-on (or two), be able to use ROS or some simulation software to test my apps, buy some additional apps that do the kind of tasks I need to do in the shop, and have all that work seamlessly and without line-for-line coding, excessive cost or too much fiddling.

What do you want? Send them to me and I’ll combine them all and send them off to the stores.