Even Amazon can’t quite figure out what Astro is for
Amazon’s cute little Astro robot has been scurrying its way around my apartment for the past few weeks. It has no arms to scratch its own head in confusion, but I am willing to do that for him. As part of Amazon’s Day 1 Editions program, the robot is a $1,000 invitation-only program with limited numbers of robots available, as the company is trying to get them into consumers’ hands with a question: How would you use this?
The company suggests that some use cases include home monitoring — an autonomous home-security system that can wander around from room to room. Astro has the ability to patrol a home with Ring Protect Pro, pop its periscope camera to see the counters, detect unidentified people when in “away mode,” send alerts when it hears sounds like glass breaking and more. You can also use it when you’re home — if you hear the dog barking at night, you can send Astro to see what’s happening without having to leave the cozy cocoon of your duvet-burrito.
The company also suggests that Astro might be a good solution for offering remote care. Your loved one can ask Astro to set and deliver reminders, or you can use Drop In to stay connected. Plus, Astro works with Alexa Together, which allows for remote care for aging loved ones, or for offering care for people who have mobility challenges or other disabilities.
Amazon also offers companionship as a potential use case — it suggests all the fun things Astro can do (things like “Astro beatbox,” or “what’s your favorite animal?” are top items, the company suggests), and it has other features that make it seem more like a pet than a Skynet-harboring robot of death and destruction.
The whole purpose of a Day 1 Edition product is for Amazon’s product teams to get their most ambitious projects into customers’ hands faster so they can provide feedback that, in this case, will help shape the Astro experience. It makes sense. Right now, Astro is a robust system and can handle a wide array of commands and tasks that customers are finding useful. The robot has a little carrying tray and a USB port for extensions that will give it any number of interesting new powers, extendable by hackers and tech-savvy users, much in the same way that someone can write and deploy an Alexa skill today.
Personally, throughout my time with Astro, I thought the robot was adorable. The speakers are good, and it’s kinda fun to have a boombox trail around and play your tunes or podcasts as you are doing chores. As a piece of first-generation tech, it’s an impressive feat that has tremendous potential. But that alone isn’t enough to make a product. In a world where the environment is front of mind, we could do with fewer gadgets that will end up in landfills eventually, not more, and so I find myself wondering what this thing is for. I can imagine a number of niche use cases — including the ones listed above — but I keep being unclear on whether this is a device that needs to exist at all.
I spoke with Anthony Robson, the principal product manager for robotic technologies and consumer robotics at Amazon, to try to get to the bottom of things. It quickly became clear that Astro’s ambition is sky-high, and that the Amazon team doesn’t quite know which direction that ambition will take it. By design, it claims, which I have some respect for, but it seems weird to me to take a “let’s build it and see if they will come, and what they will use it for” approach.
Don’t misunderstand me; I do believe there are places and use cases where Amazon’s adorable little robot friend makes a lot of sense — but when I talk to startups day in and day out, it feels really jarring. I wouldn’t let a startup get away with a solution looking for a problem, and so it feels curious to be tempted to let Amazon — who really should know better — off the hook.
“This is the very first robot in a brand new category of robots. When we started this program, we were like, why not us? Why not Amazon? You know, we have this great ecosystem with Alex and the AI chops to be able to do this. Let’s do it, let’s learn from customers,” comments Robson. “We went out and did a lot of research around what kinds of things people could envision robots helping them in their home. The home monitoring capabilities were certainly the most popular thing people could envision. I’d love to be able to check if I left the stove on, or whether my back door is unlocked. I’d love to be able to check if I need to buy bananas because the fruit bowl is empty. I want to be able to check if the kids came home or to be notified when they come home. I want to be able to talk to them and find them in the house. So that was a very popular use case that people identified. There are a number of use cases.”
The ideas came fast and thick, and every time I found myself wondering; yes, but… Really? Would customers potentially pay $1,000 to solve this problem?
Of course, the additional flexibility of the Astro platform broadens the potential quite a bit.
“We insisted on having some level of extensibility. We’re gonna learn so much about every home — and every home is going to be different and have different needs. So we added a cargo bay area with a USB port, and asked the question ‘how can we extend this platform to do more things for more people?’ We didn’t envision at the beginning of this program that we would have a pet food dispenser at the launch event,” marvels Robson. “We have customers who are working in their home offices on either side of the house sending things to each other using their Astro. We are learning, we are listening and we are adapting. We’re going to extend Astro’s capabilities as we learn from customers.”
The product team does have a few things on its wish list that it wasn’t able to prioritize for launch for various reasons.
“There are a lot of things that, simply from a practical perspective, we couldn’t add. Astro doesn’t climb stairs, for example. The level of complexity that would add to the product would simply make it too costly, and make it so it’s not accessible to as many people as we would like,” explains Robson. “We had to make trade-offs like that. We would have liked the periscope camera to go that little bit higher. But we had to compromise and say, you know, this is just enough to see over the counters. That is perfect — that keeps the device small.”
The product team also suggests that it wanted Astro to be able to move around much faster. At its current pace, you can out-walk it if you stroll briskly through the hallways of your mansion — but speed also equals trade-offs. The laws of physics start getting in the way pretty quickly, in other words.
“Again, the complexity of being able to make sure that it can be safe at all times goes up exponentially. A factor of two, with every increase in speed,” explains Robson. “You have to be very judicious about how much speed you put in because it’s going to make your sensing and your safety solutions twice or multiple times more complex.”
The Astro team hasn’t launched a developer toolkit for the Astro robot yet, but that’s on its way, too.
“We’re working hard with strategic partners. I think [an Astro SDK] is going to be happening. We want to bring that intelligent motion capability to more and more skills and accessories in the future,” says Robson. “It is not something we have ready today, but it’s coming very soon. We’re working on it as hard as we can.”
The comms team for Astro is excited about the potential of the robot as a comms and monitoring tool. It tells the story of one customer; their father-in-law had fallen out of his wheelchair. The family used Astro to communicate and coordinate emergency service responses to help him get back up. Giving additional, roaming assistance to people living independently seems like a powerful use case — except for the quirk of Astro not being able to climb stairs or open doors.
I did have a couple of fun interactions with Astro that surprised and delighted me. For example, as one part of the setup process, Astro tells you to take a couple of steps back to make space for it to leave its charging dock. As it did that, I swear it flicked the screen representing its “face”, much like one would wave one’s hands to shoo someone away. I was never able to get Astro to do it again, and the product team wasn’t able to confirm whether I hallucinated that, or whether that’s something Astro actually does.
“You know, that’s the thing when you give a robot a body language, depending on what it has to do, it’s going to move in the way it needs to move. Sometimes those things end up being interesting combinations,” laughed Robson. “So I can’t think of exactly why that would happen, but… I have been surprised by Astro before.”
Astro is an extraordinarily well-thought-out robot on a technical level. The big wheels mean it can climb over thresholds between rooms with no issues. It got stuck on my bath mat a few times but managed to dislodge itself every time, which is impressive. When I was testing Astro, I also had a foster kitten, and Astro and Chairman Meow seemed to become good friends, with the two of them chasing each other around the apartment. Astro ran over Meow’s tail once, and Meow got his revenge by folding over the bath mat, trapping Astro in the bathroom for a few hours. I’m not convinced Meow did that on purpose, to be fair, but it did strike me as funny.
The periscope camera is an extraordinarily clever feature that dramatically increases the usefulness of Astra, and the wayfinding tech is impressive. Telling Astro to go to the kitchen, and having it dutifully scurrying its way around my stacks of Amazon deliveries, office chairs and the odd shoe strewn along the flow was entertaining. A lot of work went into making Astro seem non-threatening. It moves slowly and gingerly near people and pets, it doesn’t bump into stuff all that much, and when it does, it does so carefully. The screen and Astro’s “face” are expressive, and cute, and invite a high degree of trust and user-friendliness. It shows that Amazon has the capacity of building incredibly capable robotics, even when it is compromising on product issues along the way.
It’s been fun to have Astro wandering about my apartment for a few days, and most of the time I seemed to use it as a roving boom box that also has Alexa capabilities. That’s cute, and all, but $1,000 would buy Alexa devices for every thinkable surface in my room and leave me with enough cash left over to cover the house in cameras. I simply continue to struggle with why Astro makes sense. But then, that’s true for any product that is trying to carve out a brand new product category.
I won’t miss it when I return it to its corporate office to be passed on to the next journalist who will be taking a closer look, which is rarely a good sign, but I hope that Amazon learns enough so it becomes better at telling the story of its adorable little robot. It is, truly, a solution that is carefully and adorably scurrying around looking for a use case. If Astro’s persistence is any indication, it will eventually find one.