Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Asus is betting families across the world would benefit from a personal assistant – someone to remind you of doctor’s appointments, or let someone know you fell, or entertain your kids when you’re on the phone.
Meet Zenbo, the company’s newly unveiled robot.
Primarily, Zenbo is like a tablet on wheels. It’s a small robot, about the height of the average consumer’s knees, with a ball-shaped base and a touchscreen that extends up like a face. Zenbo rolls around the house, listens to voice commands, talks to people, and connects to various devices like thermostats and lights. It even has an emotive face that could help it become just another member of the family.
Jonney Shih, Asus chairman, suggests Zenbo can do something for everyone, such as reading off recipes to the cook in the family, reading books and playing games to kids, and monitoring for emergencies. For example, if someone has fallen, Zenbo sends caretakers a message on their smartphones, from which people can remote into the robot to find out what’s happening. All of these features are shown in the 11-minute promotional video the company released.
Asus revealed Zenbo last week at Computex, though it doesn’t plan to release it to the market for another nine to 12 months. The early unveiling is intended to drum up response and get developers interested in configuring apps for the robot.
“For decades, humans have dreamed of owning such a companion: one that is smart, dear to our hearts, and always at our disposal. Our ambition is to enable robotic computing for every household,” Shih said at Computex.
At $599, Zenbo is no more expensive than a smart phone, making a smart home butler affordable to the masses.
However, tablets and smart phones already have most of the functionality Zenbo would have. People can already use these devices to play music, adjust the thermostat, lock the door, set reminders, and receive alerts via a bracelet or necklace if someone falls. Even smart home hubs like Amazon's Echo and Google Home can perform most of these features. The only added bonus is the robot’s mobility and the novelty of its emotive, cartoon face.
Zenbo may be a big hit at first. Most people have interacted with modern artificial intelligence. Having a robotic companion with expressive eyes is still in everyone's imaginations. Zenbo may be the first, affordable, mass-marketed opportunity for people to confront a personable robot - and they may just see, deep in it's big, blue eyes, it's not personable at all.