When we humans have gazed into the future, more often than not our fantasies and predictions have included robots. Whether we’re watching Bladerunner or The Jetsons, or taking a gander at what major tech companies like Apple and Google have on the drawing board, robotics and non-sentient, synthetic beings find a place among realities to come.
It’s exciting to daydream, and that excitement seems to be what fuels young robotics firm Romotive. The San Francisco-based company is leveraging smartphone technology to turn our ubiquitous devices into simple robots that can entertain us, help us learn and allow us to communicate with one another in different ways.
“One of the great unfulfilled promises of science fiction is robots,” says CEO and co-founder Keller Rinaudo. “A hundred years ago it seemed obvious that humans would have robots that would do things that would make their lives better and yet it seemed totally, insanely impossible that you would have something that weighed 500 grams that sits in your pocket that has all of the world’s information.”
Though robotics might take a backseat in the public spotlight to apps and high-profile tech companies, their day will come (if it hasn’t arrived already). As its first contribution to the space, Romotive’s product is an iPhone dock with rolling tracks, allowing it to move. A corresponding iOS app provides access to Romo, the blue-faced robot ‘personality’ that can: recognize and track faces, react to different environments and be controlled remotely by any other iOS device while using the iPhone camera to see. But with a smartphone as its brain, Romo can be taught new actions by users that either program it simply or write new apps for it.
Rinaudo says robots are already capable of amazing things but the technology that allows them to do it – sensors, hyper-fast calculations, mobility hardware – has been too expensive and unrealized by consumers. “We wanted to figure out a way of bringing design and product sense to robots, and to all of this amazing technology that already exists in academic labs but has had zero effect on how normal people live their lives.” (DEMO video below).
Has Romotive received traction? The company raised almost $115,000 on Kickstarter in November of 2011 (it’s goal was $32,000) and it’s seen about $6.5 million in funding from backers like Sequoia Capital, Stanford University Venture Fund, SV Angel, Techstars (plus founder David Cohen), VegasTechFund, Felicis Ventures and Lerer Ventures, among others. The latest generation of the $149 Romo has been ‘adopted’ by over 4,000 users, as haver another 6,000 plus units of previous generations.
Co-founders Rinaudo, Peter Seid and Phu Nguyen have been pals since toddlerhood in Phoenix, Arizona. “We always built stuff together,” says Rinaudo. “We would solder stuff together and we would order all the parts on Newegg and build new computers to play video games.”
The company was born about two years ago when Rinaudo, Nguyen and Seid were discussing basing a robot around a smartphone. Using the iPhone as Romo’s brain was a, ahem, no-brainer for the trio. “The best solution that we’ve found for bringing the cost down is using devices that people already have in their pocket as the brains of these robots,” says Rinaudo.
The fellas submitted their idea to Techstars and were admitted in fall of 2011, finding themselves the only hardware project in a software-heavy program. Nguyen brought programming experience, Seid the engineering know-how and Rinaudo had previously founded resume builder JobSpice, plus had built robots in college. “We basically just started learning as we went and I think we definitely took a beginners mind to robotics—none of us were roboticists coming out of college,” Rinaudo explained.
The first products were simple and made of laser-cut acrylics using off-the-shelf motors and a custom-printed analogue circuit board. They attached to the headphone jack of an iPhone. The demo was enough to draw capital through Kickstarter, which led to the trio setting up an assembly line in a Las Vegas apartment provided by investor Tony Hseih. “We hired a bunch of our friends to help us sit there and build robots all day long,” said Rinaudo. “We were sleeping on blow-up mattresses and my room was totally full of packing peanuts and robotics components and USPS boxes.”
Romotive made the move to San Francisco in mid 2013. Along the way the company has moved production to Shenzhen, China, and can produce up to 1,000 units per day. The firm has also grown to fifteen employees, recruiting personnel with degrees from MIT, Carnegie Mellon and Stanford. At present the Romo hardware it is available through the company’s site and through retailer Brookstone.
Though Rinaudo says the majority of Romotive’s offering falls into the educational and toy categories, developing Romo’s ability to allow users to see and interact with people that could literally be half a world away – essentially telepresence – opens up doors in the child and elderly care markets. “The key challenges are basically porting all of this amazing technology that already exists in academic labs to mobile hardware and optimizing it for mobile hardware.”
Though the company won’t disclose names, Romotive is in talks with more retailers to help get the hardware out among consumers. To grow, the company is working with a former iRobot sales chief to establish national and international distribution channels.
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