Here Comes the Smart-Home Robot Invasion
All signs point to the custom installation channel rolling out the inevitable smart home robot that's been on the horizon since the 1950s. Are you ready?
Mega disrupters, like the inevitable smart home robot on the horizon, don’t come along very often. In my lifetime there have been only two—the television and the computer—both of which were actually invented before I was born.
Earlier on, there was the radio and the motion picture. OK, I’ll let the record player sneak through. By my reckoning those five are the only ones that have ever impacted our channel specifically.
Yet the list of mere garden variety disrupters could fill a small town phone book. In TV alone—portable, color, cable, flat screen and satellite come to mind immediately and those hardly exhaust the list. All were important, none were really a mega distrupter.
Every year the scribes of CE Pro jet off to Vegas, Europe and wherever CEDIA has decided to set up, reporting back to the trade on what’s new, innovative and exciting.
Over the past few years, the national mainstream press has muscled its way onto the CES floor seeking content for that last news block or a Sunday paper living section featurette.
Lots of neat and even significant stuff get the spotlight from all media outlets but none, at least during my nearly 50 year tenure, have ever reached the level of "mega."
That said, there is without a doubt a mega disrupter on the horizon. Sometime between 2020 and 2025, some cadre of engineers will sequence and structure the right string of AI, IoT and biomechanical algorithms at last getting it right. Then some team of marketers will push and hold the excitement button that hitherto has often been pushed but quickly let go for over a century.
The fully functioning, multitasking, walking, talking domestic robot is very close to reality.
How Did We Get Here?
The concept of a mechanical humanoid has captivated the wonder and imagination of mankind since the Industrial Revolution. But it really began to hit its stride during the post World War II outer space obsessed 1950s.
As time passes and it becomes apparent that neither visiting Mars nor commuting in a flying vehicle are events Baby Boomers will ever cross off their Bucket List, this group is going to want a home robot. In truth everybody will want a robot.
And why wouldn’t they? Who hasn’t wished for their own Rosey to cook and clean like she has for the Jetsons? What guy hasn’t secretly pined for a Stepford Wife after a rough day at home where he lost an argument to a better informed spouse?
Remember Gort and Robby from those cheesy 50s sci-fi classics? C3-PO from Star Wars? Leon, Pris and the rest from Blade Runner? Yul Brenner as the rogue gunslinger in the original Westworld? And my personal fav, Woody Allen as Miles Monroe in Sleeper. (Have you seen Sleeper recently? It’s amazingly prophetic, every bit as much as the works of Isaac Asimov and Aldous Huxley but much funnier.)
The magic and fascination with robots by folks all over the world propelled the consumer electronics industry as far back as the early 1980s. Prototypes were built and demonstrated but, one after another, either never worked to expectations or were just vaporware. The Roomba vacuum raised everyone’s hopes a while back and there’s probably not one person in the Western world who hasn’t at least thought of buying one.
Robots in the 21st Century
My first memory of robots on display at CES was when industry icon Nolan Bushnell, former president of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese’s, set up with his new company Androbot.
Androbot showed two ranges of robots, popularly priced TOPO and high-end BOB (No, Ladies, not that BOB.). The space was teeming with booth babes. I picked up an uber slick 24 page brochure off a lit rack that even back then (1981) must have cost five bucks a pop to produce and rivaled what you’d get at a Rolls Royce dealership.
Alas, this time the inventor of Pong proved to be all salt and no tequila. TOPO and BOB never reached market.
Then there’s ASIMO from Honda. This guy has been shuffling around and waving at trade shows across the globe since 1986 making relatively little progress and certainly not reaching anything close to an affordable price point. ASIMO will set you back more than a fleet of a dozen or so well equipped Civics—approximately a quarter million dollars.
Honda calls ASIMO a research and teaching tool, but if they ever plan to make a splash in home robotics it might be wise for them to team up with either LG or Samsung, which might know a thing or two about cost-cutting to grab market share. Just ask Panasonic.
While the likes of the Korean manufacturing giants dominate the exhibit space at trade shows modest and grand around the globe, nowadays there are always a bevy of smaller entrepreneurial robot vendors vying for attention in 10 by 20 foot booths at the back of the halls.
Some are seeking crowdfunding. All are seeking press coverage. In fact, since at least 2009 there have been a number of post show blogs or features—often on You Tube—specifically summing up the robot offerings at that year’s CES.
Still not convinced? Well chew on this.
There has always been this hush-hush word-of-mouth axiom in consumer electronics that the surest sign of a concept’s ultimate success with the public is when that concept is adopted by the adult entertainment industry. Do a quick Google search for “sex robots” and you’ll see that the porn people are all over the robot revolution. Price? About the same as a single late model certified pre-owned Civic—$10,000.
Channel Bots Are a Comin'
How does all this impact the custom integrator? An awful lot but the degree of impact depends very much on how the robots are brought to market and by whom.
Unless I miss my guess, the first viable robot will likely come from deep inside some IT company none of us have heard of yet. This company may already exist and may even already have secured substantial venture capital funding commitments. This is much too big a deal to rely on rolls of nickels from Kickstarter junkies.
Nevertheless, if the project ends up with a VC that espouses the benefits of trickle down marketing (like plasma flat screens, among numerous other products, once began), then we could hope for a high retail, high margin product available only through CI specialists.
Remember this robot not only will vacuum your floors and fetch you a cold one but also control your home. It potentially relegates your Amazon Echo to the basement or even the doorstop status of an original Nintendo Wii console.
A specialist roll out scenario would create the biggest boom for CIs since the glory days of the 1990s. Imagine a product nearly everyone wants that functions best when installed, programmed, monitored and maintained by a professional—you.
Will this boom last forever? Of course not. Sadly, our industry nearly always eats its young and robots will ultimately end up sold by the big boxes, clubs and even over the Internet while the margin races to zero.
Sadder still is the likelihood that the modern day Rosey and her clan start as mass market low margin commodities, as has been the norm for most product and category introductions from our channel this century. Fear not. If you stay on top of this now, you can still reap the benefits ... and the money.
If you haven’t read CE Pro editor Jason Knott’s recent interview with Savant CEO redux Bob Madonna, drop everything and read it now. It’s a candid assessment about a specialty (Madonna calls it luxury) channel vendor that didn’t just dip its toes into the shallow end of the mass market pool but dove off the 30+ foot Olympic platform commando style and nearly belly flopped into oblivion.
Madonna reclaimed his company from a retail executive with no experience in our industry (unfortunate an often-told tale.) His most important revelation? There is no true DIY product in the home automation space.
And trust me. The robot won’t be the first.
Your Next Move
So you’ve got work to do. “Staying on top” means just that.
Start by reading everything you find interesting and relevant about robots from the net. This should give you a strong base of knowledge so you can answer client questions as they come up.
Bookmark and/or subscribe to sites that have articles or blogs that would be easier for clients to grasp and are CI, not DIY, friendly. Check back often—this market is moving fast.
Next, reach out to every one of your customers with a well crafted piece that lets them know that not only are the robots coming but also that you are most qualified to maximize the machine’s potential. Have links to those best consumer oriented web pieces. And most importantly, emphasize more than once that as much fun as all this appears—the robot is NOT a toy. It is the next evolutionary step towards the fully connected home.
Customize the content of this mailing for different groups. Appeal to both the affluent and early adopters to sign up now to insure their first-on-the-block status. For the less extravagant and penny pinching crowd, extol all the benefits and have financing in place.
Once you’ve seen an actual robot perform the way we’ve discussed, do everything you can to make sure you’re the first to have one to demo. Plan an event once you’re confident that you and the robot know what you’re doing. If you don’t have a shop, rent a hotel function room. It’s that important.
And, yes, it’s that big. It’s television right after World War II, not watching a golf tournament wearing silly 3D goggles on ESPN2.
It’s “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you,” not a Blackberry Passport.
It’s the Model T, not a Chevy Citation.
It’s Karl, not Harpo.
It’s ... you get the picture.
Oh, last thing. Remember Leon Kowalski from Blade Runner? He’s the rather unpleasant looking replicant that shoots Holden while being psychologically tested early in the flick. Later on, Leon tells Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) when he was born. It’s April 10, 2017. That’s just around the corner. I think his registry is at SnapAV.
Chuck Schneider is a freelance writer with a long history in consumer electronics. He started and restarted his award-winning manufacturer’s representative firm - Value Added Marketing - and was also a vice president and general merchandise manager for a multi-regional CE chain, as well as a buyer for Lechmere's (a division of Target). Today, he is a freelance writer. Have a suggestion or a topic you want to read more about? Email Chuck at [email protected]
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