Forget Drones. This Year’s SXSW Will Usher in the Era of Real-World Robots

Jibo and more will join conference's first 'Robot Ranch'

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If FaceTime and Siri already make you feel like you've been transported into a Jetsons episode or a scene from Blade Runner, buckle up. Robot makers are getting ready to mix the human experience with artificial intelligence in ways that promise a colorful and revolutionary ride, and in the not-so-distant future, automated helpers are set to change how we approach camaraderie, cat litter and calamari, and just about everything in between.

In fact, you may see an adroit talking cyborg unwrapped as a birthday present in the coming months. Jibo, which has been beta-buzzy for a couple of years now, is readying for a fall release. The robot enables video calls just like an iPhone, but its head swivels on an axis to track people's movements so they can, for example, maneuver around the kitchen while preparing dinner and keeping eye contact with the person on the other line. Jibo will also advise you on which ingredients to put in that dish you're cooking. What's more, it is wired to independently take photos and shoot video during parties—with the ability to be programmed to, say, snap pics of guests only when they're smiling. Dubbed a "social robot," the Jibo aims to redefine a range of digital utilities, including e-commerce, selfies and family life, according to the robot's creators (including Jibo founder Cynthia Breazeal, featured in Adweek's Creative 100 as one of the top digital innovators of 2015).


Watch out, Facebook—a robot is coming for your fans.


"We are going to rekindle the discussion of what an intimate social network can be," says Steve Chambers, CEO of Boston-based Jibo. "We are going for depth. We want to enhance the relationships in your lives."

Chambers and his team are traveling this week to the annual South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, which will have more robot-centric content on the agenda than ever. Jibo will participate in SXSW's inaugural Robot Ranch at the spacious Palmer Events Center where Jibo's engineers and other developers like Kuka Robotics and Makeblock will offer a crash course in robot-programming basics.

While still a nascent area, especially for marketers, the robot realm is finally more reality than sci-fi. For example, Jibo has already rung up more than $4 million in presales. (While the retail price hasn't been nailed down, the company says it will fall between $750 and $899.)

Jibo might not seem as out of place in the home as one would think. Chambers explains that Jibo, a "male" machine with personality traits all its own, is similar to the bionic butlers seen in movies and cartoons for decades. "We designed him to move in these organic arcs," he says. "He hears the door open, identifies the people and greets them. He has those social behaviors coded into his algorithm. Over time, he will know more of your preferences—little things like weather reports for geographical areas that pertain to you, or what sports you are interested in. He'll know what time you get up in the morning, what your calendar says and your hair's response to humidity, which he will then advise you on."

Jibo is part of the so-called companion robot category which includes more established global rivals like Asia's PaPeRo and Pepper and Paris-based Buddy. (Those companies have yet to impact the U.S. market.) "People have been trying to create this class of robot for a long time, yet they've never really succeeded," says Dan Kara, analyst at ABI Research. "But things are different now because the tech is better and [constant] access to the Internet allows for Siri-like responses and, in some cases, true cognition."

Kara says Jibo has an edge thanks to a decade's worth of journal-level MIT research that's gone into it. "They really know what makes it appealing and presents the kind of value that people will be willing to pay hundreds of dollars for," he says.

Working with experiential agency OBE, Jibo's marketing team will target no demographic more than middle-class parents who want to connect with grandma or grandpa many miles away and in a style that beats other communications channels. Through programmable features—think having your Jibo instruct grandpa's Jibo to do a little celebration dance when his favorite team wins—the company wants to flip the whole idea of social media on its head.

"We are trying to bring to the world a shared interactive technology that serves as a family communication hub," Chambers explains. "It's an intimate social loop, not some giant Facebook [account] where the average person has 440 friends."

Machines like Jibo won't invade private and public life in waves. Folks should expect to see them increasingly pop up in scenarios—similar, say, to how artists slowly gentrify has-been neighborhoods. "It's going to take some time," Kara notes. "But the marketplace is real and growing."

ABI analysts project that companion robots will grow from an indecipherably small sector in 2015 to $46 million by the end of the decade and $2.5 billion by 2025. The research firm projects, meanwhile, that the more advanced category of home and lawn-care robots will hit $1.7 billion worldwide this year and $2.9 billion by 2019.

While the moneymaking opportunities for robot entrepreneurs are obvious, the No. 1 dilemma they'll face is creating awareness for their brands while demonstrating to consumers that they actually need such 21st century accessories.

The principals of Robomow know the obstacles all too well. The European lawn-mowing robot maker sold hundreds of thousands of units in countries including Belgium and Germany before introducing it in the U.S. two years ago, counting on word of mouth to establish the brand here. While U.S. business improved 60 percent last year versus 2014, the company's actual revenue number remains small, which is why it has hired internal digital marketing specialists for first time. 


Karsten Beck, chief administrative executive at Robomow USA, says a basic task is communicating to the U.S. market that the product actually performs functions as advertised, noting that much of the public remains skeptical. "Until we overcome that, it's going to be a challenge," Beck says.

Considering that competitors like LawnBott have also struggled to make their mark here, Robomow hasn't benefitted from a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats situation. "You hear people say, 'Oh wow, I didn't know that even exists,'" he says.

But there are successes from which Robomow draws inspiration. Litter-Robot—which handles that job nobody wants to do, getting rid of cat litter—debuted last year, landing on the shelves of Bed Bath & Beyond and shattering revenue forecasts in the first 75 days. Its sales during the holidays were 46 percent higher than the previous quarter, credited to a marketing campaign via 28 influencers and blogs with names like Catster, Modern Cat, Novel Cat and Pitter Patter. Utilizing the #freelitterrobot hashtag, the campaign—which also involved a giveaway of 33 robots—garnered 55 million impressions and 600,000 social actions.

"It was our most successful promotion ever," says David Saterstad, marketing director at Automated Pet Care Products, Litter-Robot's parent. "We learned that we really hit a pain point. The product addresses a real need for cat owners."

Five-year-old Neato, which markets a WiFi-enabled vacuum cleaner robot that competes with the better-known Roomba, worked with the agency Doner on a digital campaign last year centered around five videos. One of those, "Hippie Piñata," promoted Neato Botvac, which lets users activate a self-navigating vacuum in their homes from anywhere in the world via a smartphone app. "Hippie Piñata" scored 1.8 million views on YouTube.

Nancy Nunziati, Neato's marketing vp, says at one point the company had to scale back the campaign because Amazon and other retailers ran out of inventory.

Neato significantly trails Roomba, which is owned by iRobot, a 25-year-old company that has probably done more to get Americans acquainted with real-life robots than anyone else. Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot (and a scheduled speaker at SXSW), notes: "While robots have always been part of our imaginations and served as a source of tremendous excitement, they have not delivered on the hype until recently."

People who have boarded Royal Caribbean's Quantum of the Seas cruise ship in the last several months have gotten a taste of the next-generation commingling of humans and robots. The 4,180-passenger boat offers B1-O and N1-C, which are robot bartenders at the vessel's Bionic Bar. They each consist of a set of mechanical arms that grab bottles from the liquor and wine racks and pour two drinks per minute. B1-O and N1-C don't have "heads" or look like people at all, instead bearing a factory-like appearance. Once the steely mixologists are done with a beverage, it moves down one of four conveyer belts to the customer.

As more branded examples like Royal Caribbean's surface, tech-leaning ad agencies will increasingly wake up to the money to be made in the burgeoning space. Digital shop Huge is ahead of the curve, recently recruiting talent for a robotics department. The work so far focuses on microcontrollers, which are the building blocks for making robots.

"It's a gateway to exploring other experiences and pushing the boundaries," says Peenak Inamdar, Huge's director of engineering. "It's also going to be about creating much-more tailored, everyday experiences for our brand clients."

Few are as bullish as Martine Rothblatt, who delivered a keynote address at last year's SXSW. Rothblatt, founder of multibillion-dollar enterprises Sirius satellite radio and United Therapeutics, talked at the festival about the robot she created, Bina48, which displays the personality traits of her wife, Bina Aspen. Since last year, Bina48 has become bilingual and spoke at a Ted Talk in Havana.

"In 15 years, [robots] will be a multihundred-billion-dollar industry," Rothblatt predicts. "The Roomba is to the sentbots of tomorrow kind of like the luggable compact computer is to the smartphone of today."

Rothblatt distinguishes "sentbots" from robots, as the former term represents life-like machines that, in theory, react to situations as humans do. Just like with smartphones, Rothblatt says, software developers will build apps that allow sentbots to be personalized according to one's preferences. Some might draw upon one's social graph.

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"Sentbots will be customizable with their own memories and recollections," she says. "Third-party vendors will ask you for access to your Facebook and Instagram accounts and personalize yours. There's going to be a huge cyber ecosystem that goes up around sentbots."

What about their impact on day-to-day businesses?

"Robots will be useful for doing more and more tasks in the office and the business world, much the way we are accustomed to copying machines, computers and other electronics equipment," she says. "As long as the sentbots have the ability to perform a task and engage in commerce, I think business is going to be receptive."

Starship Technologies recently announced that it will offer a robots service to local businesses, charging $1 to $1.50 apiece for the delivery of shoes, car parts, pet toys, seafood dinners and so on. In terms of weight, the low-to-the-ground robots are generally capable of carrying two bags of groceries from one place to the next, like a faithful, high-tech mule. The London-based company plans to essentially take on Amazon drones by pitching e-commerce brands with a fleet of clones on wheels.

"[Our] goal is to disrupt the 'last mile'—the most expensive part of the logistics chain—of local delivery to the consumer's house," says Keith Cornell, senior adviser to Starship.

Still, robots will no doubt continue to seem like a lot of mechanical bull to many consumers. "They haven't really soaked into a lot of people's consciousness yet," admits Nunziati, Neato's marketing chief.

Yet, competition in the space is getting fierce.

Take Jibo, which faces another self-proclaimed "social robot" rival in Xibot, a Chinese brand that will debut at a lower price point ($599) this August. Then, there's Segway Robot, a Jibo-like machine that the hoverboard maker concocted with Intel and Xiaomi and unveiled at CES in January.

With that in mind, Jibo's Chambers knows his marketing department must innovate to rise above the clutter. Among the tactics with which it's been experimenting is how to employ the livestreaming app Periscope. "Maybe we'll use famous locations with Periscope, combining something that people are so familiar with something so extraordinarily new," he suggests. "And we want people to be evangelists, so we could socialize [and broadcast] the concept of the Tupperware party: 'Hey, come meet the newest member of our family.'"

But won't the family dog be jealous? Hey, if Astro could learn to live with the robot Rosie on the Jetsons, there's hope for tranquility in robot-dwelling homes of the future.

This story first appeared in the March 7 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.