Consumer Robotics Show • Alaska Green Light Blog
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Welcome back to Actuator and have a great first day of CES! This will never feel weird — and not just because of the highly matter-of-fact “happy” part. One of the dirty little secrets of CES coverage is that by the time the show officially kicks off, we reporter dudes have been on the ground for at least 48 hours. I flew to Vegas on Monday and have spent the last two days meeting with startups and investors, attending press conferences and covering smaller pre-show events that purport to offer a microcosm of the week ahead – the Put teapot before the storm if you’re a fan of mixed metaphors.
CES week went a bit wrong for Actuator. Today’s start of the show really relates to the floor opening. For us, that means there’s a bit of a shift in coverage as we have more time for demos, and taking an hour here and there between meetings to check for weird stuff, which is almost certainly the email deluge in our respective inboxes (Did I mention I got down to 1,600 unread messages last week?)
I am writing this preamble primarily to say that what follows will not be a definitive or conclusive representation of the robots at CES. The show will almost certainly be overrun in Actuator next week. Still, after weeks of meetings, emails, and press releases, I’m confident that I can outline some relevant trends while scooping up some scrambled eggs from the hotel buffet.
Another prevalent weirdness in all of this, of course, is the whole pandemic deal. I’d conservatively say I’ve been to CES 15 times. You start shuffling after like number two. It’s been a constant in my life. A festive constant at the beginning of each year. As such, sitting back-to-back was weird, and starting to do it again is even weirder. It’s great to see all the familiar faces a bit worn after three very difficult years. It’s the homecoming of a city that’s made your life miserable, most of the time, but for which you harbor a certain, inexplicable affection.
Again, it’s impossible to say anything definitive at this point, but I’m comfortable noting that both the show and the city just feel calmer in 2023. Many of the Lifers decided that the whole spectacle wasn’t worth it for them (a decision I certainly respect). The supply chain and economic crises are no doubt contributing to what feels like an overall slowdown in announcements, and many of the larger companies have moved away from major live shows in general.
In all of this, however, something very different is happening for robots. I’ve done robot roundups at the fair for years, and for a long time it mostly felt like pulling teeth. The last few shows, however, have had a perfect storm. CES is starting to take robots seriously.
Put the “R” in CES
Earlier this week, I had a cup of coffee with a robotics investor who asked me if I thought the show would be worthwhile for him. Your understandable concern with all of this is that the “C” in CES once stood for “consumer.” The CTA — the governing body that hosts the event — has been very aggressive in insisting that CES now simply stands for CES. But this has always been a consumer show, as evidenced by the presence of the likes of Samsung and Sony.
In 2023, however, someone working solely on the industrial side of the robotics equation could easily fill four days or more here. CES is by no means a robotics fair. But robotics’ slow permeation of technology and culture means it’s well represented and here to stay.
There are a few key factors behind the growing presence of robots in Vegas this week.
The pandemic has accelerated the industry in general. Automakers are investing seriously in robotics startups and are acquiring or developing these technologies in-house. See: Ford’s Agility investments, TRI’s research, and Hyundai’s post-acquisition of Boston Dynamics events. Big companies like Amazon have been aggressively pushing consumer robotics.
The latter is important for many reasons. The fact of the matter is that there have always been robots – or robot-related products – at the show, but the category is as mixed as it gets. Many startups have come and gone over the years with products that couldn’t find a market. There are also many products that are labeled as robots, which certainly come close to a platonic ideal of the concept. But mostly not, these are toys – and not particularly good ones.
We’ve also seen some extremely questionable robots trotted onto the scene by companies like Samsung and LG. A robot demo has always been a quick and easy shortcut to show consumers and shareholders that your company is committed to the future and futuristic things.
Of course, there are still plenty of them here. If anything, the broader excitement surrounding the category has convinced these folks that they’re on the right track. CES is also a show about being in the moment. They do their best to verify a product’s validity, but real due diligence is next to impossible here.
Round up robotics
NVIDIA — along with other major chipmakers — usually has a sizable presence. It was nice to see a little focus on the robotics side of things. The company introduced an update to its Isaac Sim that brings simulated human robots into the equation, along with more realistic lighting conditions through ray tracing and the ability to render sensor data in real time.
“In order to minimize the difference between results observed in a simulated world and those observed in the real world,” notes Nvidia, “it is imperative to have physically accurate sensor models.”
Labrador, which has been something of a CES mainstay for the past few years, announced a partnership with Amazon (a result of Alexa Fund backing) that uses the Echo Show 10 as an almost robotic, telepresence-style display.
“The proof-of-concept demo featuring the Echo Show 10 is a preview of what we will be testing with care providers in our next round of pilots,” said CEO Mike Dooley in a press release. “Skills like these can dramatically improve people’s quality of life and their ability to live independently while staying connected to others, and we are grateful to the Amazon team for their support on this project.”
Speaking of elderly care robots, Aeo is a nice little CES success story. The company informed me that the attention at the 2018 event led to it being rolled out in Japanese hospitals, care facilities and schools. It’s a small humanoid robot with one dexterous arm that can open doors and another that has a UV light for disinfecting surfaces – a huge hit during the pandemic for obvious reasons.
Yeti is the first delivery robot we’re sure to see this week. What makes Ottonomy’s robot particularly interesting is the inclusion of an automatic dispensing mechanism that can drop packages onto porches for safekeeping or straight into a compatible locker.
“During the validation processes, we ran pilot projects with airports, retailers, and postal services, which gave us the deep insights we needed for the most effective use cases and scalability,” says co-founder and CEO Ritukar Vijay of the company’s early deployments. “With our strategic alignment with Verizon and other companies, we are in the best position to fill the gap that companies like Amazon and Fedex have not been able to fill. As demand and use cases for autonomous, unassisted delivery continue to grow, we are positioned to provide robots as a service to restaurants, retailers and beyond.”
And for fun, here’s a breathing robotic pillow called Fufuly from Yukai Engineering, the folks who brought you the Tail-Wagging Cat Pillow. I’m quoting myself here (I know, I know).
The hardware startup says the product uses “respiratory entrainment,” which refers to a phenomenon in which a patient’s breathing rhythm matches that of a ventilator. Here it basically means that the person’s breathing will match the robotic pillow and not the other way around.
Finally, Kyle pulled together some of this year’s show’s AI-powered gadgets, including a self-driving — and parking — stroller.
All right, back to that. See you later.