Even Amazon can’t quite figure out what Astro is for – businesstraverse.com

Amazon is cute little Astro robot has been rushing through my apartment for the past few weeks. It has no arms to scratch its own head in confusion, but I am willing to do it for it. As part of Amazon’s Day 1 Editions program, the robot is a $1,000 invite-only program with a limited number of robots available as the company tries to get them into the hands of consumers with a question: how? would you use this?

The company suggests some use cases include home monitoring — an autonomous home security system that can wander from room to room. Astro has the ability to patrol a house with Ring Protect Pro, open its periscope camera to see the counters, detect unidentified people in “Away Mode”, send alerts when it hears sounds like breaking glass, and more. You can also use it while you’re at home – if you hear the dog barking at night, you can send Astro in to see what’s happening without leaving the cozy cocoon of your duvet burrito.

The company also suggests that Astro could be a good solution for providing remote care. Your loved one can ask Astro to set and deliver reminders, or you can take advantage of Invade to stay connected. Additionally, Astro has partnered with Alexa Together, which enables remote care for aging loved ones, or to provide care for those with mobility issues or other disabilities.

Amazon also offers companionship as a possible use case — it suggests all the fun things Astro can do (things like “Astro beatbox” or “what’s your favorite animal?” are top items, the company suggests), and it has other features that make it look more like a pet than a Skynet harboring robot of death and destruction.

The whole purpose of a Day 1 Edition product is to help Amazon’s product teams get their most ambitious projects into the hands of customers faster, so they can provide feedback that, in this case, will help shape the Astro experience. It is logical. At present, Astro is a robust system and can provide a wide range of commands and tasks to those customers find useful. The robot has a small carrying tray and a USB port for expansions that will give it some interesting new powers, expandable by hackers and tech-savvy users, much in the same way someone can write and implement an Alexa skill these days.

Thanks to Astro’s sensors, it doesn’t bump into things too often. And the paint along the underside of the chassis, and the scratches on the walls of my apartment, indicate that Astro still has a bit to learn in that area. Image Credits: Haje Kamps for businesstraverse.com

Personally, I found the robot cute during my time at Astro. The speakers are good, and it’s pretty nice to have a boombox track around and play your tunes or podcasts while you do chores. As a piece of first-generation technology, it’s an impressive achievement with huge potential. But that alone is not enough to make a product. In a world where the environment comes first, we could do with fewer gadgets that end up in landfills, not more, and so I wonder what this thing is for. I can imagine some niche use cases – including the ones mentioned above – but I remain unclear whether this is a device that should exist at all.

I spoke to Anthony Robson, the chief product manager for robotics technologies and consumer robotics at Amazon, to try and get to the bottom of this. It soon became clear that Astro’s ambition is sky-high, and that the Amazon team isn’t sure where that ambition will go. By design, it claims, which I have some respect for, but it seems weird to me to take a “let’s build it and see if they’ll come and what they’ll use it for” approach.

Do not get me wrong; I do believe there are places and instances where Amazon’s cute little robot friend makes a lot of sense — but when I’m talking to startups day in and day out, it feels really jarring. I wouldn’t let a startup get away with a solution looking for a problem, so it feels odd to be tempted to let Amazon — which should really know better — off the hook.

“This is the very first robot in a brand new category of robots. When we started this program, we were like, why not us? Why not Amazon? You know, we have this great ecosystem with Alex and the AI ​​chops to be able to do this. Let’s do it, let’s learn from customers,” says Robson. “We went out and did a lot of research on what kinds of things people could imagine robots would help them in their homes. The home monitoring capabilities were certainly the most popular thing people could imagine. I’d like to be able to check if I left the heater on, or if my back door isn’t unlocked. I would like to check if I need to buy bananas because the fruit bowl is empty. I want to be able to check whether the children have come home or to be notified when they come home. I want to be able to talk to them and find them in the house. So that was a very popular use case that people identified. There are a number of use cases.”

Astro Cargo Bay

Astro’s luggage compartment is large and has a USB-C port to further expand its functionality. An SDK to build software for Astro is in the works, Amazon suggests. Image Credits: Haje Kamps for businesstraverse.com

The ideas came fast and thick, and each time I found myself wondering; yes, but… Really? Could customers possibly pay $1,000 to fix this problem?

Of course, the added flexibility of the Astro platform broadens its potential quite a bit.

“We insisted on a degree of extensibility. We are going to learn so much about each home – and each home will be different and have different needs. So we added a loading area with a USB port and asked the question ‘how can we extend this platform to do more things for more people?’ We didn’t envision having a pet food dispenser at the launch event at the start of this program,” said Robson. “We have customers who work in their home offices on opposite sides of the house and send things to each other with their Astro. We learn, we listen and we adapt. We’re going to expand Astro’s capabilities as we learn from customers.”

The product team does have a few things on its wish list that it couldn’t prioritize before launch for various reasons.

“There are many things that we simply couldn’t add from a practical point of view. For example, Astro doesn’t climb stairs. The complexity that the product would add would simply make it too expensive and not accessible to as many people as we’d like,” explains Robson. “We had to make such decisions. We would have liked the periscope camera to be a little higher. But we had to compromise and say, you know, this is just enough to see over the counter. That’s perfect – it keeps the device small.”

The product team also suggests that it wanted Astro to be able to move much faster. At the current pace, you can go above and beyond if you walk briskly through the corridors of your mansion – but speed also equals compromise. In other words, the laws of physics get in the way pretty quickly.

“Aprofit, the complexity of making sure it can be safe at all times increases exponentially. A factor of two, with every increase in speed,” explains Robson. “You have to be very judicious about how much speed you put in because it will make your perception and your safety solutions two or more times more complex.”

The Astro team has not launched a developer toolkit for the Astro robot yet, but it is coming.

“We work hard with strategic partners. I think [an Astro SDK] going to happen. We want to bring that intelligent movement capability to more and more skills and accessories in the future,” says Robson. “It’s not something we’ve got ready today, but it’s coming very soon. We are working on it as hard as possible.”

Amazon Astro with periscope camera

The periscope camera expands and extends telescopically, allowing Astro to see over obstacles and on work surfaces. A very elegant design choice. Image Credits: Haje Kamps for businesstraverse.com

The communication team for Astro is excited about the robot’s potential as a communication and monitoring tool. It tells the story of one customer; their father-in-law had fallen out of his wheelchair. The family used Astro to communicate and coordinate emergency services to help him get back on his feet. Providing extra help to those living independently seems like a powerful use case – except for the quirk of Astro not being able to climb stairs or open doors.

I had some fun interactions with Astro that surprised and delighted me. For example, as part of the setup process, Astro tells you to take a few steps back to make room to leave the charging dock. While it did, I swear it moved the screen representing its “face” just like you would wave your hands to scare someone away. I’ve never been able to get Astro to do it again, and the product team couldn’t confirm whether I was hallucinating that, or whether Astro actually does that.

“You know, that’s the thing when you give a robot body language, depending on what it needs to do, it will move the way it needs to move. Sometimes those things turn into interesting combinations,” Robson laughed. “So I can’t figure out exactly why that would happen, but…I’ve been surprised by Astro before.”

Astro is an exceptionally well thought-out robot from a technical point of view. Thanks to the large wheels, it can easily climb over thresholds between rooms. It got stuck on my bath mat a few times but managed to free itself every time which is impressive. When I was testing Astro, I also had a foster kitten, and Astro and Chairman Meow seemed to become good friends as they chased each other around the apartment. Astro once ran over Meow’s tail and Meow retaliated by folding the bath mat, leaving Astro locked in the bathroom for a few hours. I’m not convinced that Meow did that on purpose, to be honest, but it seemed funny to me.

The periscope camera is an extremely clever feature that dramatically increases the usability of Astra, and the signage technology is impressive. It was amusing to tell Astro to go to the kitchen, and dutifully let him rummage through my piles of Amazon deliveries, desk chairs, and a pair of shoes. A lot of work has gone into making Astro seem non-threatening. It moves slowly and carefully around people and pets, it doesn’t bump into things as often, and when it does, it does so gently. Astro’s screen and ‘face’ are expressive and cute, inviting a high degree of confidence and user-friendliness. It shows that Amazon has the capacity to build incredibly capable robotics, even if it makes concessions to product issues along the way.

It was nice to let Astro roam around my apartment for a few days, and most of the time I seemed to use it as a roaming boombox that also has Alexa capabilities. That’s cute and all, but at $1,000 I’d buy Alexa devices for every surface imaginable in my room and have enough money left over to cover the house with cameras. I just keep wrestling with why Astro makes sense. But that’s true of any product that tries to create an entirely new product category.

I won’t miss it when I bring it back to HQ to pass it on to the next journalist to take a look, which is rarely a good sign, but I hope Amazon learns enough so it gets better at telling the story of his cute little robot. It really is a solution that carefully and adorably rummages around looking for a use case. If Astro’s persistence is any indication, it will eventually find one.