After Delays, “Social Robot” Jibo Enters Home Assistant Fray

Xconomy Boston — 

After three years of hype and shipping postponements, Jibo is finally delivering its eponymous “social robot” to customers.

The Boston-based company announced Wednesday that its robot is now for sale to the general public, with shipping set to begin in November. The price tag? $899.

Jibo (pronounced JEE-bo) launched a crowdfunding campaign for the product on Indiegogo in the summer of 2014 that ultimately raised more than $3.6 million from backers. The company delayed shipments several times and offered its Indiegogo backers full refunds if they wanted. Shipping delays aren’t unusual for crowdfunded projects, especially those involving hardware products that require a lot of engineering and manufacturing. But Jibo has been closely watched, in part because the startup has a well-known founder—Cynthia Breazeal, an MIT Media Lab researcher and associate professor—and it has raked in tens of millions of dollars from investors including CRV, Fenox Venture Capital, and RRE Ventures.

Jibo began shipping its interactive home-assistant robot to early backers in September, and more than 2,500 units have been delivered so far, a spokeswoman says in an e-mail to Xconomy. As of Wednesday afternoon, orders placed on Jibo’s website have an estimated ship date of November 13.

Delivering a product to customers is an important milestone for Jibo, but the path ahead could be difficult. If it gets inundated with orders, the company will have to prove that it can handle manufacturing and delivering the product on a large scale (which would be a good problem to have, of course).

The bigger question is how strong the demand will be. The company’s crowdfunding campaign demonstrated there was interest from consumers, but in the three years since then, the market for in-home assistant devices has gotten more crowded. Voice-controlled “smart” speakers, like the Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa devices, can handle many of the same tasks as Jibo, such as delivering a weather report, relaying the latest sports scores, or telling a joke on command. And those devices are much cheaper than Jibo—the least expensive versions of smart speakers from Google and Amazon run about $50. (Disclosure: I own an Amazon Echo Dot, and my girlfriend is employed by Amazon in Boston.)

Jibo is betting that its robot’s “unique and engaging personality,” and its ability to perceive and react to what’s happening around it, will set it apart from other home-assistant devices. Jibo uses face and voice recognition technology, and the company claims it can learn to recognize up to 16 people. The device is stationary, but its three-axis motor system enables it to contort its shape and swivel 360 degrees. It might, for example, say “hi” or ask you a question when you walk into the room, and perk up when you speak to it.

Jibo can also snap photos one at a time or in bursts, among other features. The company intends to continue advancing the robot’s capabilities with the help of outside developers; a software development kit will be released next year, according to a press release.

In the long run, Jibo envisions its robot playing a role in things like early childhood education and senior care—areas that other home assistants might move into as well.

What’s clear is the company is attempting to create a device that is more than a robotic helper—it wants customers to consider Jibo a friend or member of the family. How far it gets in accomplishing that could determine whether Jibo builds a big company that advances technology and its relationship with humans, or ends up as an interesting failed experiment.