"Personal robots are one of the great unfulfilled promises of science fiction, because today they're either plastic toys or million dollar tech showpieces."
That's what Keller Rinaudo of Romotive, the maker of the smartphone robot Romo, says in the company's latest Kickstarter video. That's right, Romotive is back nearly one year to the date of it's original successful Kickstarter project to show off the all-new Romo smartphone robot.
The new Romo has been revamped with new software and hardware, a less DIY-looking design, and an interface that emphasizes more personalized, social interactions. In that sense, Romo reflects the changes that Romotive has undergone in just a year, with the founders shedding the college student look and taking on more of the tech chic that similar startups have adopted for their pitch videos.
To fulfill its obligations from last year's campaign, the team says it constructed 2,000 Romos by hand in an apartment. That hands-on time building their product gave them a lot to think about in regards to making improvements (something that other companies might learn from). They wanted to fulfill a vision of a truly personal robot, one that can do remote telepresence, autonomous navigation and facial recognition. Though improvements to the hardware have been completed, some of the software challenges remain.
To get those features developed, they turned once again to crowdfunding.
The first Kickstarter had a goal of only $32,000, and it successfully raised $114,796 from 1,152 backers, which helped the company get off the ground, hire more staff, and revamp Romo's design into version 2.0. One year later, the team set a higher goal of $100,000 to achieve their development targets. In less than a week, the project backing had surpassed that mark. With about 3 weeks left in the current campaign, the project has passed its previous pledged total.
Now backers who pledge $150 will receive the new Romo, which is almost twice the amount of last year's model. For 5 backers who were really sold on Romo and agreed to pledge $500 or more, Romotive aims to create a Romo with the personality of their choice, including face, voice, and kinds of expressions.
Here's the Kickstarter pitch so you can see the new Romo robot in action:
One stipulation of the Romo is that it requires an iOS device as its brain (iPhone 4 or 4S, iPod Touch 4th gen) and either another iOS device to control it, including older model like the iPhone 3GS, iPod 3rd gen, or iPad 2, or a Mac running at least Snow Leopard. Although the previous Romo supported Android, the new one does not as the team opted to commit to Apple devices this round and expand to Android at a later date.
One selling point that the team could probably use to market Romo better is to emphasize that it's the perfect way to reuse older iOS devices. With many Apple loyalists buying new iOS devices every 1 to 2 years and the iPod being marketed toward younger users, Romo would be a perfect fit for families that have some of these extra devices lying around.
The design change definitely has a more consumer-friendly feel to it, and that could really broaden Romotive's customer base beyond the DIY crowd. The company seems to be heading this way. In the Kickstarter FAQ, the company states that it has plans to introduce a female counterpart to Romo dubbed Julia.
Whether you like Romo or not, Romotive has done something quite savvy by filling the gap in the personal robot market. Instead of having to create entirely new robot hardware, they employ a smartphone to be the brain, which users already have bought. Convincing consumers to opt into a whole new company vision for robots is a challenge, so they opt to build off customer loyalty to iOS devices and turn their robot into an accessory. By the way, the Romo costs the same amount as another widely popular Kickstarter accessory, the Pebble watch.
But probably the most brilliant aspect of this approach is that smartphones will continue to become more powerful, feature heavy devices, which will provide Romotive with even more features to build software to utilize. Each new iteration of smartphone technology means potential improvement in what Romo can do.
That's an incredibly smart move that other personal robot manufacturers seemed to have overlooked. Furthermore, it suggests that that's where personal robot technology should head toward. Think of the smartphone like a portable robot brain that you could plug into any robotic accessory you wanted to, whether it was a small pet like Romo or a personal care robot for the elderly. Robots are often shown as being self contained entities, but why couldn't you carry its personality around with you wherever you go?
As an unconventional robotics company, Romotive is off to a great start finding good traction in the Kickstarter community. It also appears to be putting the pieces in motion to be able to expand to a larger consumer market. For now, Romo is a cool gadget that extends the lifetime of some iOS devices, but in the near future, Romo could be the first personal robot that many people acquire.
If you want more Romo action, check out a video the team made last year using the old model: