Robot startup Jibo unveils a multi-purpose ‘social bot’ for the home

Jibo founder Cynthia Breazeal and software architect Jonathan Ross with a Jibo prototype. Photo by Scott Kirsner/BetaBoston.
Jibo founder Cynthia Breazeal and software architect Jonathan Ross with a Jibo prototype. Photo by Scott Kirsner/BetaBoston.

Roomba hunts dust bunnies. Autom helps you shed pounds.

But Jibo wants to be the first multi-purpose robot for your home — a countertop assistant that can snap family photos, remind you of the day’s schedule, relay messages, entertain children with interactive stories, and facilitate videoconferences. The $499 product is being unveiled today, but won’t be available until late in 2015.

I first wrote about the company in early 2013, shortly after it was formed by MIT prof Cynthia Breazeal, and then updated you on the personnel involved last month, as Jibo added new funding and brought on team members from iRobot, Netflix, Zynga, and Turbine. Steve Chambers, formerly at Nuance and PictureTel, is Jibo’s executive chairman. The startup has seven employees in Weston and three in San Francisco. Breazeal is taking a leave from MIT’s Media Lab, where she founded the Personal Robots research group, to serve as Jibo’s CEO.

Breazeal and software architect Jonathan Ross gave me a demo of Jibo earlier this week at the offices of CRV, the startup’s first backer. After Breazeal said, “Jibo, wake up,” the robot went through a short spiel about its capabilities. I’ll say this: it’s movements and on-screen animations give it a lively personality. But I didn’t get to see its ability to track people as they move around a room, or to respond to touch or spoken commands. Jibo’s screen doesn’t display eyes or a face, but instead a futuristic looking sphere, which can morph into icons like an envelope (for an incoming message) or storybook illustration. Messages can be sent to Jibo through a special app.

Breazeal said that there are six microphones built in to help Jibo turn toward a person who is talking, two color cameras that give it depth perception, and several touch sensors so that Jibo can react to a pat on the head or a gentle stroke.

Jibo the company worked with Huge Design in San Francisco on some of the product’s look and feel. (At left is company-supplied photo of what the finished product will look like. A bit like a countertop cousin of Eve from “Wall-E,” no?) jibo2Jibo the robot runs on a Linux-based operating system, and outside software developers will be able to use JavaScript to build new applications for it. (A developer’s kit is available for $599.) Ross says that developers will be able to easily tap into Jibo’s facial recognition capabilities or its ability to track moving objects to create games or productivity apps. One example from Jibo’s demo video is recognizing you when you come home, asking if you’d like to get dinner delivered, and then sending in your usual order.

Breazeal says that she envisions Jibo eventually plugging in to connected homes to manage security and energy usage, and to healthcare devices like scales, glucometers, and Fitbits.

“The next wave of computing is about emotion,” she says. “Jibo is the first stake in the ground. It’s about helping to facilitate your connection to your friends and families.”

Check out the company-produced video below, which pitches Jibo as “the world’s first family robot”… I’m eager to spend more time with Jibo and see what the experience is really like.

Jibo is running a pre-order/crowdfunding campaign through Indiegogo and its own website. In addition to buying a t-shirt or putting down a deposit of $99 on a Jibo of your own, you can also donate $80 to help donate a Jibo to Boston Children’s Hospital. The goal of the campaign is to collect at least $100,000 toward Jibo’s production costs. The startup has raised several million already from investors including CRV (formerly Charles River Ventures), Fairhaven Capital Partners, and Osage University Partners.

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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