iRobot's Colin Angle Berates The Bot Biz

Posted 27 Jun 2006 at 05:02 UTC by The Swirling Brain Share This

Colin Angle of iRobot Roomba fame has berated the robot industry at the Robo Business conference this week. Back in the 1950's people dreamed of more impressive robots than a mere intelligent vacuum. However, Science Fiction never had to turn a profit; today's robot companies do if they are to survive. Mr. Angle (iRobot CEO) basically argues that "We are not waiting on the technology. We are waiting on good business models and ideas." Perhaps pridefully, the best selling Roomba vacuum robot fits into such a category. Roomba, with it's good business model explains why it has survived where other robot ideas have failed. Another thing the article notes is that close to 90 per cent of the exhibitors at the Robo Business conference were shooting for military pork. (yea! destroying things!) Perhaps military money is where it's at for robot businesses wanting to be successful? Perhaps that explains why iRobot also builds the PackBot? iRobot has been secretive about future projects, but surmising from this article you can be sure it'll either have a good business case or be something for the military!

More comments from Coline Angle:, posted 27 Jun 2006 at 18:57 UTC by Nelson » (Journeyer)

Colin Angle this week demonstrated the authority that comes with being a robotic vacuum magnate. He told the crowd here at the Robo Business conference that they'd let consumers and businesses down with sub par products. They had supplied more hype than innovation and could use something akin to steroids for their imaginations if they hoped to get the robot industry moving in the right direction.

During his keynote presentation, the angular Angle noted that the "robot demo industry is doing just fine." Groups focusing on making walking robots and the like "have substantially slowed the industry."

"We are not waiting on the technology. We are waiting on good business models and ideas."

That's a tough message for a crowd of dreamers who spend most of their time hammering away at one-off products that cost of millions of dollars to produce. At the same time, the attendees seemed to like Angle's speech. They were like children needing to feel reprimanded after doing something naughty.

"The industry does not need hype," Angle told The Register in an interview. "It needs good business and good products. I want the industry to be taken seriously. Saying walking robots are a distraction is about saying the industry doesn't need smoke and mirrors to be a fantastic industry."

The Initial Frontier, posted 27 Jun 2006 at 19:24 UTC by Nelson » (Journeyer)

I agree with much of what Colin says.

With current technologies, there are probably a number of limited- purpose products like Roomba that could be comertically viable today.

And I agree that the focus on humanoids and walking machines has been very distracting. It is human nature to equate motion with intellect and personality. Like ducklings, we can become emotionally attached to anything that moves.

From a research perspective there is absolutely nothing wrong with making walking machines. However, for the greatest return on our efforts, my vote would be to focus on algorithms and software.

Yes, Roomba is a commercial success, and PackBot has saved lives, which is very important. However, I am not convinced that they are good examples of the technical advances that I would like to see.

iRobot used to make some excellent research robots. It is unfortunate that they have abandoned this pursuit.

Robotics is a wide open frontier, and we need to venture beyond the nearest treelines in order to say that we are truely explorers.

15 years of losing money..., posted 28 Jun 2006 at 02:50 UTC by thorn_stevens » (Journeyer)

tends to give you some needed perspective on what the robot industry needs. That's the iRobot story. Created in 1990, and lots of fantastical prototypes with little utility outside of a lab got them some press, but no products and no sales. And then came Roomba. 2 million sold. And Scooba, 50,000 in 3 months. Robotics needs iRobot to do well. More sophisticated robots will come, but you need to start with what people are willing to buy at the local Wal-Mart. -Thorn, publisher, Robot Stock News

B21, Magellan, ATRV..., posted 28 Jun 2006 at 09:34 UTC by Nelson » (Journeyer)

Actually, iRobot did design and manufacture a number of excellent research robots such as the B21, resulting in sales to many university research labs.

Although the volume of these sales are comparatively small, it should be enought to keep small companies in the black.

RWI, Nomad, IS Robotics, posted 28 Jun 2006 at 09:52 UTC by Nelson » (Journeyer)

Looking back, IS Robotics started out making walking machines such as Gengis. They changed their name to iRobot when working on a joint toy venture with Hasbro.

The B21 and Magellan were actually designed by RWI, which sold out to IS Robotics.

And about 10 years ago another company, Nomad, which also made some excellent research robots, also decided to throw in the towel.

That's my point..., posted 28 Jun 2006 at 13:18 UTC by thorn_stevens » (Journeyer)

iRobot doesn't want to be a small company any more with a few niche research robots. It wants to take over the world. They want to be a billion-dollar company, and are more than halfway there, and you can't do that on research $'s alone, you need products that are affordable, mass-produceable, etc. iRobot can leave the fancy, niche hardware to the research outfits, where they probably belong. -Thorn

Sounds like Agreement, posted 28 Jun 2006 at 20:57 UTC by Nelson » (Journeyer)

My only concern is that it sounds like $$$ has become the primary focus, and robotics has become a secondary considertation. I don't expect they will turn to manufacturing shoe laces or toothpaste if it could generate a larger return, but I hope that they never decide to rename their firm iProfit.

what's wrong with profit?, posted 29 Jun 2006 at 04:05 UTC by marcin » (Journeyer)

Seriously, iRobot is a public company with investors who want a return on that investment. It is not in a public company's interest to research where there is no reward. You'll probably get symbiotic relationships between industry and universities - fund some research in a lab, or pay for some PhD to do some non-proprietary but useful research.


Disclosure - I am not an iRobot investor but I can pretend to be one on TV for a fee.

Temporary Fad?, posted 29 Jun 2006 at 07:09 UTC by Nelson » (Journeyer)

The other thing that bothers me about iRobot, besides abandoning the manufacturing of serious research platforms (not sure of the economics, but I would expect that they were well beyond the development phase and their support costs could have been minimal), is a nagging suspicion that in the long term Roomba could turn out to be a short-term fad like scooters or furbys.

Yes, they have sold millions, but are they really needed products? It is my perspective that when it comes to household cleaning their functionality is limited, as is their performance. Their only strong selling point is that they run automatically.

I suspect that in the past the current roomba owners managed to live quite nicely without them, and suspect that Consumer Reports could have been on the target when they gave them a thumbs down.

The real test of time will be the long term direction of the sales curve, once they are no longer a novelty.

I am therefore glad that iRobot has not decided to also abandon their military products market!

next fad, posted 30 Jun 2006 at 05:08 UTC by marcin » (Journeyer)

If iRobot execs have their business wits about them, and I suspect that they probably do, then they will already be working on the next fad. Not sure if a toilet cleaning robot will be the next big thing, but then again, I don't like cleaning the toilet so there may be something in it...

I should also probably point out that I don't think household robots are fads, rather that their early adoption will be driven by traditional early adopters - high income, above-average intelligence, time poor, young professionals. Just like any new disruptive technology.


Killer App?, posted 30 Jun 2006 at 19:59 UTC by Nelson » (Journeyer)

Even if Roomba turns out to be only a short-term fad, i suspect that iRobot might be skillful enough to ride the crest of a string of similar products.

However, if I were investing in robotics, I would focus on applications other than household cleaning. The problem I believe is that any really useful household robot would need very sophisticated perception and manipulation capabilites that will not be available in the next decade, and that will be expensive, even when manufactured in high volume.

I suspect that the real killer application for robotics could be automotive collision warning and avoidance, navigation assistance, and auto-pilots.

Assuming (and this is a big IF) that liability issues can be resolved, I am inclinded to suspect that such products could be developed in the near future that would be quite acceptable in terms of weight, power, cost, and utility. And they could possibly save thousands of lives.

[Just one viewpoint, among many. I welcome yours.]

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