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Robotics Pioneer Launches the First Personal Robot You Might Actually Buy

Are these the robots you've been looking for?

Cynthia Breazeal wants to take robots out of the lab and into the living room.

The MIT associate professor is widely recognized as a pioneer in social robotics, most famously producing the engaged and friendly faces of Kismet and Leonardo. But now she has formed her own company, Jibo, which has developed a namesake 11-inch-tall robot that swivels around on two axes and roughly resembles a lamp.

I got to see Jibo up close this week at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass. In several years of covering robotics, it’s one of the most ambitious and affordable robots for the home that I’ve seen. To date, the category has largely been defined by toys like AIBO, vacuums such as Roomba and, more recently, high-priced personal robots like Intel’s Jimmy ($1,600 for a kit) and SoftBank’s Pepper (nearly $2,000).

Jibo will cost $499 for those who preorder in a crowd-funding campaign that kicks off on Wednesday (starting with a deposit of at least $99). The company will operate the funding process itself, but Indiegogo will host it in parallel.

The robot will come out of the box packed with educational, entertainment, communications and photography applications. It can act out stories, snap family images, flag appointments, play voicemails and read emails aloud. It also acts as a telepresence robot, swiveling its camera and monitor to allow users to engage in remote video chats in a more natural way.

You get a better sense of it in the video below.

Breazeal expects to ship the developer version of the product during the third quarter of 2015. It costs an extra $100 but comes with a software development kit and support to help buyers build new applications. The consumer version should arrive ahead of the holidays next year. Full production is expected in 2016 at a price equivalent to a high-end tablet.

Breazeal, on professional leave while getting the company off the ground, has spent most of the last two decades developing robots that could perceive and respond to social cues like tone of voice and pauses in conversation. Kismet, Leonardo and other robots that came out of her lab can variously move eyes, ears, mouths and other body parts in ways that make human interactions seem more natural.

Jibo exemplifies the aim of much of that work. It’s cute and friendly, with an almost child-like voice and a spherical eye on the round screen that blinks and morphs into shapes like hearts and smiley faces. It speaks in natural language, understands spoken commands and learns to recognize different voices and faces.

It’s a sort of three-dimensional Siri, packed with more brains, functions and personality.

Breazeal said she wanted to create a family helper able to interact in intuitive ways, allowing people of all ages to easily use it.

“People want technology to treat them like a human being,” she said. “Right now, technology treats us like technology: We get beeped at.”

The big limitation, in robotic terms, is that Jibo is stationary — with no arms, wheels, legs or treads. But that’s a key reason why a robot packed with so many features is relatively inexpensive.

Down the road, Breazeal hopes to integrate Jibo with other hardware accessories and third-party devices, making it the interface for the connected home.

While she plans to continue developing ever better versions of Jibo, Breazeal said the robot is in many ways a culmination of her years of work, stretching back to the development of Kismet in late 1990s.

The plummeting price of sensors, chips and cameras along with the improving quality of software has finally made it possible to deliver sophisticated robotic technology at a consumer price point, she said.

“For me, Jibo is almost the meta,” she said. “It’s everything I’ve learned and figured out in terms of what is possible.”

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