Seven Dreamers Laboratories Ltd., which made the Laundroid laundry-folding robot, is the latest casualty in an ongoing shakeout of makers of consumer robots. Developers of household automation are still trying to find the right mix of affordable and useful technology, enough market demand, and financing to endure.
Tokyo-based Seven Dreamers yesterday announced that it had filed for bankruptcy. The company said it plans to continue making nasal insertion devices to help people breathe while sleeping, but it is getting out of household robotics because of a lack of funding.
According to The Japan Times, Seven Dreamers had received ¥10 billion ($89 million U.S.) and accumulated ¥2.2 billion ($20 million) in debt. The company had partnered with Panasonic Corp. and Daiwa House Industries Corp.
For the past few years, the cabinet-sized Laundroid was a fixture at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. However, its size and cost — estimated at $16,500 — were big barriers to household adoption.
Consumer robot companies stumble
Chores such as folding laundry were supposed to be easy targets for automation, but many have proven to be too complex to cheaply solve. Developers of consumer robots also need to pay close attention to their potential customers.
Consumer robot startups, such as Jibo, Kuri maker Mayfield Robotics, and Keeker, have struggled in the past year to meet expectations for their social robots. These tabletop devices failed to demonstrate how they would be more helpful than smart speaker competitors such Amazon Alexa/Echo or Google Home, which are more connected and draw from their producers’ massive amounts of data and expertise in artificial intelligence.
Other companies have pivoted to commercial service robots, such as SoftBank Robotics’ Pepper, where retailers and robotics-as-a-service contracts make the cost more manageable. Some consumer robots are designed more specifically as aides and companions for the aging, such as Intuition Robotics’ ElliQ.
The dream lives on
While general-purpose robots with AI capabilities may be far away, hardware and software engineers keep striving to apply the latest machine perception, cognition, manipulation, and mobility to consumer robots.
iRobot Corp. has been the biggest household name in consumer robot companies because it has kept its focus on its Roomba vacuum cleaners while spinning off entities such as Endeavor Robotics. In February, FLIR Systems Inc. acquired Endeavor Robotics, which makes unmanned systems for military and other uses, for $382 million.
In the meantime, iRobot has added indoor mapping to its Roomba i7+, partnered with Google for smart home controls, and developed the Terra robotic lawn mower. The rise of robots for food preparation may start in restaurants, but as with dishwashers, they could eventually come home.
And people who hate folding laundry shouldn’t despair. California-based FoldiMate Inc.‘s consumer robot is designed to cost less than $1,000, has a smaller footprint than Laundroid, and was successfully folding clothing in demonstrations at CES 2019. Gal Rozov, founder and CEO of FoldiMate, said it will be available later this year.
While Laundroid was a classic “black box,” whose inner workings were difficult to discern and reportedly included robotic arms and an image-recognition database, one can see FoldiMate’s arms working. The company is also considering markets such as hospitality and healthcare. Other companies such as Mira Robotics are developing robots to fold laundry.