Amazon announced its long-rumored $999 Astro home robot on Tuesday. I had a chance to check it out in a demo with Amazon last week and wanted to share a few thoughts on what Astro is, what it can and can’t do and why Amazon decided to build a home robot.
Astro seems like a strange gadget for Amazon to launch. The company is best known as an online store. And most of its operating profit comes from its AWS cloud business. Notably, Astro is a “Day 1 Edition” product, which means it won’t be sold to everyone at first. Instead, Amazon will ask people to sign up and then invite them to order the robot. That allows Amazon to avoid building too many gadgets it won’t sell and a public flop like the Amazon Fire Phone that was discontinued in 2015.
Amazon said Astro will go on sale later this year but did not give a specific launch date. (It’s worth noting that Amazon has made similar promises about future products that either never launched or were severely delayed.)
So, why robots?
“We get together every once in a while and we organize a senior team meeting around ‘what are some of the changes in technology?'” Amazon’s vice president of product Charlie Tritschler told me. “And we talked about AI and processors getting more powerful and inevitably robotics came up. And one of the discussions was: ‘Does anyone here in this meeting think that in 5-10 years there won’t be more robots in your home?’ And everyone was like ‘well yeah, of course.’ It’s like, well then let’s going.”
Tritschler said Astro brings together a lot of what Amazon already offers in other products.
“We’ve got a decade-plus with what we’ve done in fulfillment centers,” Tritschler said of the company’s industrial robots that cart products through its warehouses. “But then all of the things we’ve done in devices and Amazon Prime Video and Alexa and home monitoring, and we had so many things we could pull together.”
That’s a good representation of what I saw in the demo.
What is Astro?
Astro is about the size of a small dog. It roams around your house on three wheels, including two big ones that prevent it from getting stuck and a smaller one for rotating. It has a camera that rises up on a 42-inch arm that can keep an eye on your home as Astro patrols while you’re away. It can follow you around and play music or display TV shows on its 10-inch touchscreen. It can recognize faces (if you want it to) so you can load up two sodas in the back storage compartment and tell Astro to go to someone in the living room.
Astro is like a combo of lots of Amazon’s other gadgets placed on wheels. The cameras can be used for home security or for video chat, sort of combining Amazon’s Ring cameras with its Echo Show smart screens. The cameras are also used to create a map of your house when you set Astro up for the first time. You can talk to Astro much like you’d talk to an Echo or Alexa (you can change the name to Alexa if you want) to get sports scores or the weather. And you can play movies or TV shows like you would on an Amazon tablet or Fire TV.
I also saw how you can control Astro remotely from a phone app, which is useful if you want to keep an eye on a loved one who lives alone, like an aging family member. Tritschler told me Amazon will also sell a third-party insert made by Omron that fits into the back storage compartment and can hold a blood pressure cuff. That will allow folks to control Astro remotely and remind people who live alone to check their blood pressure, which seems useful and opens Astro up to an audience outside of just gadget-geeks who want a home robot.
But Astro doesn’t have arms or hands so, it can’t pick things up. It’s not quite the level of Rosie from “The Jetsons” TV show. (Speaking of that show, Astro is not named after the Jetsons’ dog. Early testers just preferred that name over others.) It also can’t go up or down stairs, so it’s really only good for one floor of a house.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if manipulation could do more? Could you have an arm that picks things up off the floor or tidies up or brings you drinks? But when we looked at technologies and the cost and complexity of those technologies today, and reliability at the consumer level, they’re just not there yet,” Tritschler said. “And we realized, hey, this is a journey, we don’t have to do everything in the first product. So we focused here on mobility, intelligent motion, visual ID, and some of the other really tough challenges we had to overcome.”
I’m torn on how I feel about the Astro.
On one hand, wow, it’s cool that we finally have a home robot, even if it can’t clean up and bring me stuff from the fridge. On the other, I can’t really think of many reasons why I’d need one in my house at its current price, other than as a conversation starter or for home security since a roaming robot seems like it would be effective.
I think Astro will be most compelling for people who want to keep an eye on loved ones who live alone, and who might find it useful to call over a robot with their medicine inside, or a blood pressure monitor sitting in its cubby.
Tritschler said Amazon is bullish on robots, though, and made it clear this is just the first one. Amazon has a lot of ideas on how to make them even better. I knocked the Amazon Echo when it first launched in 2014. Now millions of people have one in their homes. Maybe the same will be true for Astro in 10 years. That’s Amazon’s goal.