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ASUS' $599 home robot is smarter than it looks

Engadget Engadget 2/06/2016 Richard Lai

© Provided by Engadget

It goes without saying that ASUS' first-ever home robot, Zenbo, stole the show at this year's Computex. As soon as it rolled onto the stage during the keynote, everyone rushed to the front to get a good look at this cute little fella; and that was before Chairman Jonney Shih shocked the audience with its surprisingly attractive price point of just $599. Apart from its basic capabilities, little else was said about the machine, so we traveled all the way to ASUS' headquarters to meet Shih for a detailed demo. During the process, we managed to pry a little more info out of the exec, including what's inside this mysterious bot, the thinking behind its design and a target launch date around the holiday season.

For a robot that is about a meter tall and can move its head, wheel around, recognise people plus objects and do voice interaction, $599 is almost too cheap -- that's in the same league as some of the unlocked flagship smartphones. From what I could see, the BB-8-like machine runs on four wheels (two large rubber-tired ones and two small assistive ones), and it's able to avoid bumping into objects or falling down the stairs by using an array of sensors around its body. There are also speakers, microphones and apparently a full-day battery tucked somewhere into the bot.

Unlike its spherical body, Zenbo's face comes in a "paper clip" oval shape to accommodate a 10-inch touchscreen (we think the prototype had a 1080p LCD panel) that's occupied by a cute animated cartoon face most of the time. You'll also find a conventional camera and a depth camera -- likely similar to the one ASUS made for Softbank's Pepper -- right above the screen, which are for face and object recognition, taking photos and surveillance. There's a socket at the top left for future accessories, which could include a projector, according to Shih. While there's no word on what processor is inside, it's pretty obvious that Zenbo runs on Android -- which is great for attracting developers to create apps for Zenbo.

As to how ASUS has managed to set such an affordable price point, again, Shih wasn't willing to share the details. Instead, he went on to explain the design thinking that strictly focused on the essential features. For one, limbs and fingers would be too costly to make, nor would they be practical given today's technology -- they aren't precise enough to pick up pills for the elderly, for instance. In Zenbo's case, the wheels alone are sufficient for surveillance and basic remote assistance purposes.

There's also a reason for why Zenbo is modeled as a cartoon-like character with a five-year-old personality: A realistic human-like robot would be a bit intimidating plus costly, which isn't a good idea for a company's first attempt in entering this market. On the contrary, a kid-like design would appeal to all ages. This is especially important for children, who will treat Zenbo as a playmate and dance with it, watch it act out a story or even try some kid-friendly programming to boost their logical thinking.

The seemingly intuitive voice commands -- initiated by saying "hey Zenbo" to the bot -- helps as well, and Shih said Zenbo's natural language processing will only get better over time with machine learning. These make features like screen-sharing remote assistance and screen casting to TV a whole lot easier than digging them up in the menus, which can be challenging for elderly users. But more importantly, they will potentially benefit from Zenbo's fall detection emergency feature: If a fall is detected by their wearable devices (in this case, a ZenWatch 2), Zenbo will automatically call a designated contact to start a video call and offer remote control via an app, so that said contact can go check on the users.

With just under half a year to go, it'll be interesting to see what new features Zenbo will get by then. Regardless, we have a good feeling that this machine will sell like hot cake and make a fun home helper, but whether it'll arrive on time or stick to the same $599 price point, that's a whole different story.

Stay on top of all the latest news from Computex 2016 right here.

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