IRobot’s Colin Angle on the Home Run of Robotics (It’s Not A.I.)

Xconomy Boston — 

When it comes to consumer robotics, iRobot has to be the poster child. It was born 27 years ago out of MIT, founded by legendary roboticist Rodney Brooks, now professor emeritus, and two of his students, Helen Greiner and Colin Angle. Over the years, the company has made many forays into various products—including the My Real Baby doll on the consumer side, but also bomb-sniffing robots for the military. It found its groove, though, in the seemingly ubiquitous Roomba robot vacuum cleaner, its mainstay product.

Right now, the Bedford, MA-based company (NASDAQ: IRBT) is on a pretty nice roll. Revenue for the first three quarters of the year soared to $557 million, up 24 percent from $448 million in the same period a year earlier, with profits rising 64 percent to $46 million. IRobot’s stock price is around $68 a share, up from $52 a year ago—though well down from its peak of over $107 per share this summer. But the good times haven’t come easy. A lot of hard lessons have been learned, and the company has come a long way since its original business model—“private mission to the moon, sell the movie rights,” in the words of Angle.

In recent years, iRobot has shifted dramatically. It shed its defense and enterprise-remote presence businesses (the latter included its healthcare telepresence operations) last year to focus on the home market—led by the Roomba—and in 2015 launched a venture group to help robotics entrepreneurs grow the industry (it’s made about a dozen investments to date). More recently, it has set its sights on how robots can help enable and fulfill the vision of the smart home.

Success with this grander vision won’t come easy either. I recently sat down with Angle, who’s been CEO since 1997—and is the only one of the three founders still working at the company. (Greiner and Brooks both have their own startups, drone-maker CyPhy Works and industrial robot company Rethink Robotics, respectively.) Angle says innovation in robotics is like working in “anti-dog years,” meaning what you thought you could do in one year actually takes seven.

Among other things, we talked about lessons learned, his vision of the smart home and how to get there, and the ultimate home run of robotics—“helping people stay in their home as they age and maintain the lifestyle advantages of living at home.” And that means, he says, “We’re going to need a lot of robots.”

Here is an edited version of our conversation.

Xconomy: Why don’t we start with an overview of where you are with iRobot and where things are headed.

Colin Angle: IRobot has the last two years really focused on the consumer. We’ve divested our defense business, we’ve spun out commercial activities, and are laser focused on the home market. How are devices and robots going to evolve over time? What’s the interface and synergy between robotics and the smartphone? And we’ve pretty much obsoleted the upright vacuum cleaner. Twenty percent of all money going to vacuuming is going to robot vacuuming, and that’s been really exciting to see that first great mainstreaming.

X: Was the Roomba the origin story of the bigger smart home focus?

CA: Yes. The bigger smart home focus is enabled by the fact that the installed base of connected mapping robots is a reality. Millions of maps are being created every week of where the robot’s going, and that creates opportunities over time for homes to get smarter about what they’re supposed to do—and the Roomba is central to that future.

X: Can you elaborate on where you see the smart home going, and how that fits what you’re doing at iRobot?

CA: The challenge with the current smart home is that the home doesn’t understand enough about itself to actually be smart. We talk about the smart home, but really what we’re talking about is a cell phone-controlled piece of electronics–whether there be a light bulb you can turn on with your cell phone, or a toaster oven, or a thermostat. There’s some convenience there, but not a ton, because turning on your lights with the cell phone is not a huge step forward from pushing a light switch. In fact, many people would say it’s a step in the wrong direction because I have to spend 20 seconds to turn on a light bulb [with a phone] when I can do it in half a second with a switch. So what is needed is really a compelling idea about what the smart home is supposed to be—and then how do we get there.

So this idea that I should just live my life, and the home should do the right thing, that’s compelling. I’m not turning things on and off. I walk into a room, the lights go on, the heating adjusts appropriately. When I leave for more than a certain amount of time, maybe that room shuts down to save me energy. That’s a home operating in an intelligent fashion. And we haven’t even gotten into more exciting goods and services that your home can do for you.

But if that’s the vision, it begs some real questions. If I’m going to turn on the lights in a room, I need to know what a room is. It’s really that simple. Our homes don’t understand anything about even what’s in them. And so how are you going to control it? You could say well, we’ll just program it. And that sounds good, other than the fact that we couldn’t program the clock on a VCR. We haven’t suddenly got smarter. So either I hire someone to do it for me, which is expensive, or it has to happen automatically. And that’s where robots come in.

We now have robots that can drive around your house building an understanding of what they’ve done. That’s game-changing, because we can start talking about automatically generated data sets that include a concept of a room [and] what’s in that room, so that homes can program themselves. You couple that knowledge [with] where am I, and then [Angle snaps his fingers], your home becomes smart. Because you can have a set of preferences as to what you want to have happen, or your home can just say ‘Oh, whenever Colin is sitting in the living room the following things happen—so why don’t I just do it automatically, and he can tell me if I’m wrong and I’ll learn very quickly what I’m supposed to do.’ That, I think, is going to be the next step in building a smart home.

X: What’s been missed up until this point when people think about smart homes?

CA: They don’t approach the smart home by thinking of the home as a robot. They say, ‘I’m going to connect everything, I’m going to create a voice interface to the home’ without really thinking of what that means. Really cool products like Alexa and Google Home exist, but they … Next Page »

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