Is there an interactive robot in the house?

Robots are slowly finding their place in society. Whereas robots are increasingly proving their worth in industry and also gradually establishing their suitability for other fields - for example in care settings - the social home robot has not made as much progress as you might have expected.

What is the position of the interactive home robot and what developments have taken place over the past four decades? If we look at the advertising campaigns over the past 35 years, the general home robot is no closer to becoming a reality, either in terms of its potential or in terms of the presentation of its behaviour as optimal.

Although robots were, and still are, capable of quite a lot, programming them takes a good bit of knowledge, skill and patience. The robots of the 1980s did not have to compete with other technological gadgets – unlike modern home robots, which have to justify their presence and usefulness in households overflowing with technology. Robots are now usually easier to program, but they are still don’t come in ready-to-use form, which represents a barrier to purchase. Moreover, interactive robots were always quite expensive and this has not changed, particularly when compared with the computer, for which prices have fallen dramatically.

Since the 1980s, household robots have been depicted as a friend around the house or as a member of the family, capable of taking over a range of tasks to make people’s lives more pleasant. This image gave rise to unrealistic expectations. Also unrealistic was the time-scale this was supposed to materialise in. Although a lot has changed over the last 35 years, the changes have taken place much more slowly and in a different way than was initially expected.

What has changed

After years of design research, the appearance of interactive home robots has gradually become standardised: minimalistic, round, white, and with a large ‘head’. The idea behind this is to achieve a safe, practical and easy-to-build design with a neutral look that people find attractive and that fits in with any interior.

Furthermore, the arms or grabs of yesteryear have now disappeared because it was found that robots could only transport or manipulate objects that people had handed to them. The grasping of arbitrary objects was found to be such a challenge that manufacturers moved away from the idea of a robot with arms, rather than attempting to develop it further.

Many of the tasks that predictions from the 1980s had social home robots performing now fall under the heading of ‘home automation’ or ‘domotics’: switching lighting on and off, security, access to information via the internet, etc. Robots cannot distinguish themselves by performing these tasks, as smartphones and other devices can do them just as well. As a result, the social home robot has still not really found its functional role within the home.

(Picture above: social robots then and now - Omnibot 2000 vs. Jibo - source: Tomy and Jibo)