Game Changers 2015: Jibo the social robot

Founder and Chief Scientist Cynthia Breazeal with Jibo, the personal robot.
Founder and Chief Scientist Cynthia Breazeal with Jibo, the personal robot.

Now that we are all comfortable talking to artificial personas on our smartphones — “Siri, who are the Sox playing tonight?” — Cynthia Breazeal thinks we’re ready for a robot companion that lives on the kitchen counter. Breazeal took a leave of absence from MIT, where she runs the Personal Robots Group within the Media Lab, to develop Jibo, a playful “family robot” that will cost about $500. Her company started taking pre-orders last summer.

Jibo looks a bit like Eve, the white flying droid that costarred in Pixar’s WALL-E. Its chipper personality is dramatically different from creepy robots in sci-fi films, some of which Breazeal worked on as a consultant. Jibo can serve as a videographer, tracking your face as you walk around the room, or read your e-mail as you prepare dinner, or remind you of upcoming appointments. There’s also a bedtime-story feature for kids. Breazeal talks about eventually linking Jibo to security systems and health-monitoring technology, so it can serve as an intelligent observer of the home and its denizens.

Do people really want a robot in their lives? Jibo raked in $2.2 million in pre-orders for the product. “We were able to show a lot of interest from consumers and software developers that wanted to create apps for Jibo,” says Breazeal. That enthusiasm led to a $25 million funding round from a group of venture capital firms early this year.

The Boston company now employs more than 20 people, including veterans of iRobot, Walt Disney, and Hasbro. A new CEO, Steve Chambers, came from Nuance Communications, the Burlington speech-recognition firm that contributed key technologies to Apple’s Siri. The company intends to hold several hackathons to give software developers a chance to work with Jibo prototypes and plans to begin shipping finished product by the end of the year.

Jibo is one of the Boston Globe’s Game Changers this year.

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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