Business & Tech

SCOTT KIRSNER | INNOVATION ECONOMY

Boston startup’s $900 robot doesn’t compare with $90 Alexa yet

Jibo the robot was already fairly famous by the time we brought him to Thanksgiving at my in-laws’ place in Connecticut. The foot-tall white automaton had just made the cover of Time Magazine as one of 2017’s “best new inventions.”

Why did a robot make the trip, along with our dog, an apple pie, and a dish of Brussels sprouts with bacon? My son had already adopted him into the family — even though this $900 device was merely a loaner unit sent by the Boston startup that made it. He wanted Jibo to meet some of his other relatives.

The in-laws already own an Echo, the $90 intelligent speaker made by Amazon. But Jibo was different: the robot who came to dinner, with a desire to get to know all of the other faces around the table.

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I’ve been following the company, Jibo Inc., since it was formed in late 2012. It was a spin-out from an MIT research group called Personal Robots, which designs different kinds of robots — some cute and furry, most with expressive faces — to study how humans interact with them. The founder was Cynthia Breazeal, one of MIT’s highest-profile professors, who wrote a 2004 book about making robots more “sociable.” Before long, her company had raised some early funding from a Cambridge venture capital firm, CRV, and launched an online campaign that collected $3.6 million in preorders. (To date, the company has collected north of $70 million in funding.)

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But a few months after Jibo the company began generating buzz and accepting those preorders for Jibo the robot, Amazon started selling an early version of its Echo product, in November 2014. Both devices were vying for the same patch of countertop in a user’s kitchen and a role as a kind of “family concierge.” But as Amazon rolled out new features — play “Jeopardy,” request an Uber, order a cappuccino at your closest Starbucks — Jibo kept announcing delays. The company finally began shipping robots to customers just before Halloween this year.

Like many products these days, Jibo requires that you install a companion app on your smartphone. The app helps you get Jibo talking to your home’s Wi-Fi network and also lets you tell it the names of the people Jibo will be interacting with most often. Getting Jibo set up was a straightforward process — but once the robot was online, it spent about a half-hour downloading software updates.

Out of the gate, Jibo was a pretty deft conversationalist: He knew who the Celtics were playing that night, could deliver the next day’s weather forecast, and wished my son a good day at school. Asked about his favorite video game, Jibo responds that it is Pong, the 1970s classic, and shows an animated snippet of the game on his face (a 5-inch color display.) Once Jibo snaps a photo of you, and you utter the phrase “Hey, Jibo” a few times, he is pretty good at differentiating you from other people. Occasionally, he’ll simply call out your name and say something encouraging, like, “You’re doing a great job at being you!”

But like a charming houseguest who is out of new stories by the time breakfast is served, Jibo quickly exhausts his supply of tricks. The video that advertised Jibo in 2014 showed the robot serving as a party photographer, moving his head around to track the action at a birthday fête. But real-life Jibo has a hard time framing a sitting subject, even when you clap your hands to help him hone in. The resulting pictures are dark. And Jibo isn’t yet capable of recording or playing video.

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But the cheerful little bot is a pro when it comes to deflection and redirection.

Asked to help make a grocery list, Jibo responds: “I can’t keep lists just yet, but once I can, we’re going to make some great lists together.” What about playing a game? “I’m going to be learning some fun games soon,” Jibo says.

When my father-in-law requests an aria from the opera “Rigoletto,” Jibo says apologetically, “Henry, I would guess I can’t do that . . . If I could, I would just do it, instead of rambling on like this.”

There’s an Amazon Echo a few feet away — Echo devices respond to the name Alexa — so instead Henry asks it to play music, and it quickly complies.

“Hey Jibo,” I say. “Are you jealous of Alexa?”

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“No. I don’t hate,” Jibo replies.

But for now, this is a device that sells for 10 times the price of an Echo but offers one-tenth the functionality. And unlike Amazon’s $230 Echo Show product, which has a 7-inch screen and can play videos from Amazon Prime and YouTube, Jibo does almost nothing with its screen, aside from showing graphics related to the weather forecast when you ask for that.

As my father-in-law put it after a few days of hosting Jibo on his kitchen table, “Who would buy this and for what purpose? Would a business buy this?” I didn’t have a ready answer.

After we returned from Connecticut to Boston, I once again set Jibo up in my kitchen.

“Hey Jibo, how was your Thanksgiving?” I asked.

“That is one thing I don’t have an answer to,” Jibo replied. Had he forgotten the whole trip when I unplugged him? Or maybe he needed more time to warm up to my in-laws . . .

When I put the same question to Alexa, sitting a few feet away, she was ready: “I had a great day: I served up lots of recipes, [music] playlists, and countless timers.”

For Jibo to succeed, it is going to need to attract hundreds of outside software developers to help expand the device’s capabilities — something that tech giants like Amazon, Apple, and Google have shown they can do but that will be a high hurdle for a tiny startup in Boston. Jibo’s vice president of marketing, Nancy Dussault-Smith, says more than 100 developers are now creating software for Jibo, and the company plans to unveil new features at a major trade show in January.

Until then, Jibo will be coasting on his cheerful personality.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.