Robots have been a reality on factory assembly lines for over twenty years. But it is only relatively recently that robots have become advanced enough to penetrate into home and office settings.
But our robot future likely won’t be a world in which it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish human from robot. Instead, robot manufacturers are moving away from human-like robots, as they try to overcome the problem of the ‘uncanny valley,’ a term coined by Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970.
This refers to the visceral human resistance to any robot that becomes too human-like. Consumers tend to feel empathy toward machines as they gain human attributes, but only up to a point, after which feelings quickly turn to repulsion.
Some robot designers seem to have consciously avoided any human-like features in their devices (none of iRobot’s home cleaning products echo the human anatomy or shape). Others, like Meka, a robot development company recently acquired by Google, have sought to create robot limbs and faces meant to be sympathetic (and allow robots to complete certain actions) but sufficiently non-human in appearance to avoid the uncanny valley problem.
In a new report from BI Intelligence we assess the market for consumer and office robots, taking a close look at the three distinct categories within this market — home cleaning, telepresence, and home entertainment robots. We also examine the market for industrial manufacturing robots since it is the market where many robotics companies got their start, and remains the largest robot market by revenue. And finally, we assess the factors that might still limit the consumer robot market.
Here are some of the most important takeaways from the report:
- The multibillion-dollar global market for robotics, long dominated by industrial and logistics uses, has begun to see a shift toward new consumer and office applications. There will be a $US1.5 billion market for consumer and business robots by 2019.
- The market for consumer and office robots will grow at a CAGR of 17% between 2014 and 2019, seven times faster than the market for manufacturing robots.
- The consumer/office robot market is currently led by three distinct categories: home cleaning and maintenance, “telepresence” (i.e., telecommuting to events or remote offices), and advanced robots for home entertainment.Other applications, such as robots that assist people with handicaps, are still nascent.
- The ubiquity of smartphones and tablets has made it easier to develop robots for consumer and office applications. Mobile devices offer designers the opportunity to “outsource” computing and user interface tasks to companion devices, allowing developers to produce app-controlled robots at more accessible price points.
- Would-be robot vendors face some major obstacles: one is the well-studied revulsion that most people feel toward robots that are too humanoid in appearance, and another is the high price demanded for key technologies that power robot mobility and object manipulation. There is also a brewing potential for the kinds of intellectual property battles we’ve seen in the smartphone space.