Personal companion robots have been around for ages, but they've never really been able to live up to our expectations. Everybody wants Rosie from The Jetsons, but we seem to always wind up with Paulie's Robot from Rocky. While previous companion bots like the AIBO or NAO have found moderate acceptance among consumers, they've mainly been novelties: toys rather than tools. That disappointing streak could finally be at an end, though, thanks to Blue Frog Robotics' new mechanical companion, Buddy. This little guy has R2-D2's versatility but with Wall-E's emotive abilities. The BFR team recently stopped by Engadget's San Francisco office to show off an early version of the device. Despite a few quirks with the prototype they demoed, Buddy could soon find a place in your home and your heart.
Buddy stands a little over two feet tall and weighs about 11 pounds. It rolls around on a wheeled tripod with about an inch of ground clearance -- enough to get it over loose cords and transition between floor types, but don't expect it to follow you up the stairs. A 32GB Android tablet serves as both its face (which can be re-skinned with five alternatives) and primary input device through which users can program it to perform various behaviors. Programming Buddy's actions is very intuitive: Simply tap and drag action icons onto a digital timeline that dictates what it'll do and when. The tablet can also charge a number of external devices so long as they have a USB plug. As for Buddy itself, the robot automatically recharges using an included docking station, kind of like a Roomba.
Buddy can emote a variety of feelings.
An Arduino microcontroller located in Buddy's body cavity translates the tablet's commands into mechanical movement while a host of sensors (video, thermal, audio, facial recognition, air quality and more) line Buddy's waist and forehead. Buddy can also interact with your home's connected devices over Bluetooth and WiFi, thanks to its integration with its open-source Unity software and IFTTT compatibility. The open-source Unity platform is especially important as it will allow developers to freely improve the robot's functionality, boosting existing capabilities and adding new ones -- all of which will be available on Google Play. What's more, now that Buddy's Indiegogo $500,000 stretch goal has been reached, the robot will have access to IBM's Watson cloud-based services, which should allow for much richer and more natural interaction.
Since Buddy is, in essence, a self-guided Android tablet, it performs a surprisingly wide variety of tasks. It can act as your personal assistant, syncing with your calendar and contacts to remind you of upcoming meetings and other items. It can also recommend recipes, launch playlists -- even route phone calls through its face so you don't have to frantically search for a ringing phone. Buddy can also perform as a telepresence robot by either standing still while you conference call through its face or rolling through your house as a sentry while you're at work. When on security patrol, Buddy can be programmed to follow a set route or you can take command remotely, using your phone as a control pad. Of course, Buddy isn't armed or anything (yet!) so if someone does break into your house while you're away, it'll be about as much help as a Nest camera. At least you'll be able to yell and swear at the crooks as they make off with your valuables -- and probably Buddy too.
Buddy as a telepresence robot
But whatever, there are plenty of products that already perform those tasks. What sets Buddy apart is that it does all of those things and has well-developed social skills. Just as the AIBO became so integrated in Japanese households that owners held funerals for their robo-panions when they broke, Buddy's makers hope it becomes part of the family. It can entertain children with face-displayed movies and e-books, or project them onto a wall with an included pico projector that mounts on as an arm attachment. Buddy can also reportedly tutor kids to a degree with interactive math lessons. Even more impressive, preliminary tests conducted by the Institute for Children with Autism found Buddy to be an easily accepted companion to special needs kids. And since the crowdfunding campaign has easily surpassed the $150,000 stretch goal, Buddies will ship with BFR's "Special Needs" pack, which "aims to be an attractive tool to help kids with autism to learn, communicate, interact and be more autonomous."
Buddy can also help elderly family members remain independent for longer. Its "Elder Care" pack, which comes with the production model, includes the self-charging station so grandma doesn't have to repeatedly figure out how to plug it in. It also includes an integrated serving tray that can transport food, beverages, meds or what-have-you between rooms. Plus, "pop-pop" and "gangy" can leverage any of the entertainment, telepresence, security and companion features already discussed for themselves.
Buddy's lower sensor bank
That said, the prototype Buddy I saw was fairly bare-bones. It was rather deaf, too; I had to say commands repeatedly to get it to respond. It also had some difficulty spotting people's faces with its recognition camera on account of its height. It had to crane its neck back and look up at my backlit face given our differences in stature. And despite the impressive abilities that the production model is expected to ship with, the Buddy prototype that I met had an unusual habit of trying to charge headlong off the edge of the table I set it on like some sort of mechanical lemming.
However, Blue Robotics says that it's already aware of that shortcoming and is working to upgrade the robot's mics ahead of its 2016 release. Similarly, the final version will be offered alongside two optional mechanical arms equipped with a variety of tools like the pico projector and the serving tray described earlier. The company also envisions both users and its developer community creating their own function-specific, 3D-printed appendages. The Buddy Classic goes on sale next July and will cost $749, although contributors to Blue Frog's Indiegogo campaign will get theirs for $200 less. The campaign concluded Friday, beating its initial goal by more than 500 percent.