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Summary:

When will American’s learn to stop worrying and love robots? That question must be echoing inside consumer robotics company iRobot (IRBT). The Burlington, Mass., company went public nearly two years ago and its share price has spent much of last year below the $24 offering price. […]

metropolisWhen will American’s learn to stop worrying and love robots? That question must be echoing inside consumer robotics company iRobot (IRBT).

The Burlington, Mass., company went public nearly two years ago and its share price has spent much of last year below the $24 offering price. Revenue from consumer products –60% of iRobot’s revenue last year – fell 1% in the first half of 2007 from a year ago.

Some of that decline was tied to waning appeal of iRobot’s flagship consumer product, the Roomba vacuum. But iRobot had some new products up its sleeve, and it announced them last week: a robot to clean out rain gutters, and a mobile robot that can send images of kids, pets or the infirm to remote PCs. The response? iRobot’s stock was down as much as 3.2% Friday, hardly a standing ovation.

Much of the press also seemed indifferent, if not disappointed, reflecting a very cautious attitude in the U.S. for robots in general: “Weird New iRobots Unleashed” (PC World); “Robot Invasion Escalates” (Washington Post); “iRobot’s New Products Could End Up Lonely and Unloved” (TheStreet.com).

Where’s the robot love? In Asia, apparently – and in Japan, particularly. But in the U.S. there’s a robot dread running like an undercurrent beneath our robot fascination. Isaac Asimov called this robot-phobia “the Frankenstein complex”, and it is deeply ingrained in American and European culture. Take a look at this list of the 50 best movie robots: From Hal to T-2 to the Fembots, we Westerners applaud evil robots and their fourth-reel destruction.

Neena Buck, a robotics analyst quoted in the AP’s coverage, noted a sharp difference in robot comfort between East Asia and the West.

“In the U.S., we want our robots to be utilitarian, and act as helpers to us,” Buck said. “In Japan and Korea, they think of robots as friends and pets, and as additions to their families.” But as prices come down, “I think Americans will be willing to experiment with cute-ish robots that do something like bring a family together.”

The culture gap is evident in this video of Asimo, Honda’s humanoid robot, breaking into a trot. The children and adults in the audience seem delighted, but my puerile American mind felt more ambivalent: I felt both impressed by the achievement and amused by a robot running like someone who is, shall we say, desperate to defecate. I also found iRobot’s photos of perfectly behaved children observed by the ConnectR creepy in a way I can’t describe.

And yet, I like the idea of affordable household robots that iRobot pioneered. iRobot built the Roomba like Apple (AAPL) built the early Macintosh: Both created from scratch an original platform that others can create applications for. Both made a machine simple to operate and easy for middle-class consumers to afford. And both popularized a fledgling industry that had massive potential over coming decades.

But household robots face an obstacle that personal computers didn’t: the Frankenstein complex.

Not only are we revolted by robots that are overly humanoid, we are also cold to robots that are overly utilitarian. We don’t want robots to be too much like us, but we are bored if they aren’t as fancy as the ones we’ve seen in movies.

I still think household robots could be a huge market down the road, and that iRobot could be a big player in it, but it will take decades. In the meantime, a lot depends on how companies like iRobot manage our contradictory feelings about robots.

  1. Author seems to have totally ignored the fact that iRobot lost a defense contract to its competitor RobotFx. The value of contract is 280 million dollars. IMHO the movement in the stock price seems to be a reaction to that.

    (http://www2.fbo.gov/spg/USA/STRICOM/W900KK/Awards/W900KK%2D07%2DD%2D0004LnAll%5FCLINS.html)

    Moreover iRobot has slapped RobotFX with a lawsuit accusing it of stealing Intellectual property. More details can be found in following link

    http://www.xconomy.com/2007/09/24/judge-asks-for-more-information-on-venue-issue-in-irobot-robotic-fx-case/

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  2. True, I ignored it because it was a military contract and I was talking about iRobot’s consumer business.

    The loss of that contract caused IRBT to fall from $24 to $18, but considering that the stock once traded at $37 there’s something else going on.

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  3. I personally feel that this product is much of a novelty than an upright vacuum a floor moper or anything useful to me as a consumer. In plain and simple terms this product is not effective and does not improve my immediate situation!

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  4. It’s way too early in iRobot’s life to draw any conclusions. The company’s sales have increased about 1200% over the last 6 years, after all. And the vast majority of its sales so far have been in the US.

    The ConnectR is a pretty weird robot, but so was R2D2 and we still somehow managed to think it cute after a scene or two.

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  5. Kevin Kelleher Monday, October 1, 2007

    Daniel,

    It is too early and it isn’t. As I said, iRobot has tremendous long-term potential. But there are short-term issues that need to be resolved to fulfill it. Comments like Samir’s – which sadly are not as scarce as they should be – are another example of that.

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  6. Those short-term issues reflected in the stock price are very real, but have to do with the summer handoff to Roomba revision 2 and the company letting its gross margins deteriorate as the old version sat on the shelf.

    Regarding Samir’s negative comments, we don’t know his circumstances or whether he represents a niche or the mainstream. Not everyone needs or wants an iPhone either.

    But to be clear, I’m not as sure as you are that iRobot’s long-term prospects are bright.

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  7. Jesse Kopelman Monday, October 1, 2007

    I think iRobot’s travails have nothing to do with any kind of fear of robots, although that certainly is an imaginative explanation. Their problem is that their robots aren’t useful enough. Do they have a Roomba that can climb stairs yet? What about a robot that can do the laundry (including ironing/pressing)? How about a robot that can walk the dog and pick up its poop? How about a robot chauffeur? How about a robot cook? When they actually have such robots, people will want to buy them and, yes, some people will be afraid/revolted by them.

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  8. Interesting analysis. One possible conclusion is that iRobot might do well to just change their name to something that doesn’t involve robots. The Hollywood inspired robot dread is probably directed towards humanoid robots, which the iroomba definitely isn’t.
    The only difference between an iroomba and, say a washing machine, is that the former has to move around your house. A technological achievement, no doubt, but hardly a big step towards strong AI IMHO.
    Maybe if they called it an “automatic vacuum cleaner”, then the mass market, focused on utility rather than novelty, would be moved into buying rather than dreading.

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