Robots for folding laundry at home: two approaches

20.17, Tuesday 22 Mar 2022

I’m still kinda surprised that home robots stalled out. Nothing big since Roomba launched 20 years ago.

Ring’s home security drone, which monitors your house by flying a camera around inside on pre-set paths, was announced in September 2020 and is still MIA – you can apply for an invitation to purchase one (The Verge). Ring is an Amazon company. Amazon’s Astro robot is also invite-only but is shipping: it’s a smart speaker on wheels and has optional cup holder and (coming soon) blood pressure monitor accessories. Check out some Astro customer videos.

But why not more?

Economics? Hardware has never been great for margins – if you’re a big tech firm, put your effort into software and platforms to gather data to drive marketplace activity.

Maybe it’s just too hard to make something good? In the old days, technology commoditised really fast component by component. But maybe the requisite tech isn’t easily available and reconfigurable – mmwave radar is new and specialised to cars; the AI to move in the home requires vast amounts of training data, an expensive proposition in itself. So in previous cycles we got wild invention from the recombination of commoditised tech, and that process has blocked somehow.

What if it’s a lack of imagination?

FOR INSTANCE:

Foldimate is a home laundry folding robot. (Thanks Howard van Rooijen.)

It’s the size of a fridge and you feed your clothes in at the top, a bit like feeding a giant laser printer one sheet of paper at a time. PC LOAD UNDERPANTS. It hasn’t shipped yet.

Alternatively, from 12 years ago: Berkeley scientists develop a robot that folds towels. Absolutely you must watch the video: the robot arm rotating the draped towel for the computer vision camera is uncanny and beautiful.

And whereas Foldimate feels like an approach that’s so focused that you have to ask why you would bother, the Berkeley approach is more generative…

If you had a robot arm to fold towels, then why not pick it up and move it around the house and get it to do other things?

Do the dishes.

Knead sourdough.

Mix cocktails.

Catch tiny house plant flies out of the air, for as long as those darn things are lifecycling away in the top inch of soil (guess what I’ve been dealing with recently).

What if it is an imagination problem? The success of Apple means that companies nowadays want to be vertically integrated: figure out the product, but then also figure out the potential ecosystem and where to situate oneself in the value chain to extract maximum profit… and don’t do anything at all unless you can see a route to get there.

What if we’re all so out of the habit of thinking of general purpose technology that nobody’s thinking really hard about robot arms that are both safe around kids and programmable to e.g. both pick up toys and also make cupcakes when you hand it the ingredients?

There’s an interesting paper to be written on why innovation like this isn’t happening.

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