TMCNet:  Bay State robot developers to test shopping assistant

[March 01, 2012]

Bay State robot developers to test shopping assistant

Feb 29, 2012 (Boston Herald - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- By next holiday shopping season you may be getting help at your favorite store from an automated assistant, if brainiacs at the Bedford-based iRobot get their way.


The futuristic firm plans to begin pilot tests this year for a retail robot to help you shop. The goal is to create an experience that will be a hybrid of traditional shopping, where you get the item right away, and online shopping, where you can do Web research before buying.

"Brick and mortar stores have been at a disadvantage," iRobot CEO Colin Angle told the Herald yesterday. "They haven't figured out how to inform the customer at the shelf. People can touch and feel products, but they're relying on their own judgment, without the judgment of others." Enter Ava, a multi-purpose robot that looks a little like a five-foot pole on wheels, with an iPad, or other tablet computer, for a head.

"Ava is our new platform that can build maps of its environment, and is really good at moving around crowded areas -- a retail store, an office building, a hospital," said Angle. "All of these are targets for Ava." The company yesterday announced it would reorganize into three business units: home, including its Roomba vacuuming robot; military, including its PackBot bomb-detecting robot; and the new emerging technologies unit, which will work on creating business lines for Ava.

Morningstar analyst Adam Fleck said the home and military units would likely remain iRobot's strengths, but he added that investors would be happy to see more visible attempts to enter new markets such as retail.

"It's probably several years out," Fleck said. "But as people welcome technology into their lives more and more, there's an opportunity there." Angle said Ava would likely turn up in big-box stores first, and would cost "in the tens of thousands" of dollars, but the price would come down over time.

Ideally, the robot would create jobs in the robotics industry and help retailers grow, he said, adding that "it's not meant to be a replacement for a knowledgeable sales assistant." Using Ava, who could also "work" in health care and security, in retail is in the "good idea" stage now, but Angle said the company plans to get a few pilot programs going this year.

"Depending on the reaction, this could lead to a new line of business within a few years," he said.

Retail consultant Mike Tesler said retail robots may be a hard sell. Retail chains are often "all talk, no action," he said, talking up technological innovations, but then never really incorporating them into the business.

"Do you really need that to buy something?" Tesler said. "You're in line to buy cheese and you need a robot?" But Tesler's no shopping Luddite -- he thinks the iPad has great potential to help retailers, and added that he likes how the Starbucks app, and iPhone-toting Apple Store employees speed up the process at those stores.

"If it works, and it's convenient, we'll do it," he said. "But you've got to show how a robot will speed up the process, and get me the item I want as quickly as I can get it. If not, it's just a novelty." brendan.lynch@bostonherald.com ___ (c)2012 the Boston Herald Visit the Boston Herald at www.bostonherald.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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