The New Era of Household RobotsBy Gabrielle Whelan
What image comes to mind when you read the words household robot? Perhaps a human-like bot of the Jetsons variety who handles household duties with a smile? That might indeed be where we’re headed, but in the next few years your domestic robot is more likely to be in the form of a dog, minus the fur.
In 2018, Koda-9 AI Lab was founded with the goal of making the world’s first consumer high-end robot dog. Why in the form of dogs though, you might ask? After speaking to Emma Russell, Koda-9 AI Lab’s co-founder and CEO, along with Whipsaw Senior Industrial Designers Wei Gu and Aki Nakazawa, it became clear that dogs are simply a softer entrance into this SciFi-like territory, and that the world just isn’t ready for Rosie Jetson. Enter Koda-9.
What the Pup
Robot dog technology has been around for several years now. Many of the forays into this space for the army and special forces, however, (such as the Boston Dynamics’ robot) yielded industrial-looking animal bots. Koda-9, on the other hand, is an approachable AI-powered robot capable of evolving and learning while wearing multiple hats, including guard dog, companion, kid’s opera teacher, baby monitor, documentarian and helper.
Koda-9 can walk two meters per second, demonstrates 20° climbing abilities, and it has adaptive and predictive control based on deep machine learning. Additionally, Koda-9 features strong vision, audio, touch and smell capabilities.
Part of Koda-9’s operating system will be on the cloud-based AI chain. Koda-9’s owners will continually purchase units of AI computing power (CP) to enable its evolving functions and make it learn faster. For that reason, the Koda-9 development team likes to label this AI CP as “dog food.”
Another consideration for this specialized product is how communication will occur between Koda-9 and its owners. Russell explained interactions will take place through Koda-9’s touch panel and voice control. Its internal microphones will be set to receive voice signals from users (similar to Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Echo, and Google Home) that it will then react to either through a spoken response or physical action.
Most tech products fall under two paradigms: Apple or Tesla. Apple is expected to churn out a more technologically-advanced version of the iPhone each year, whereas Tesla is only expected to unveil a new product every few years. In this sense, Russell explained, Koda-9 is more like Tesla. The company has plans to eventually develop a bigger version of Koda-9, who’s presently a small-scale version of a real dog. They also plan to introduce a module of new accessories for Koda-9 every few years.
“We will soon see the rise of the era of decentralized computing power and advanced AI technology,” Russell noted. “We will have multiple models of Koda-9 to meet the different needs of the market. Many will be tiny and adorable. Others will be the size of your current guard dog. There will be a Koda model for everyone.”
As with pretty much every product in the robot space, Koda-9’s initial owners might be wealthy tech-inclined folks. As Koda-9 catches on, however, it may also appeal to consumers who crave the most advanced home security tools, desire better ways to document their lives, and are open to alternative forms of companionship.
More specifically, Koda-9 might attract anyone in the market for a dog but finds themselves unable to get one for reasons such as:
- Their environment is not pet friendly.
- Someone in their household has allergies.
- Someone in their household doesn’t like the smell or fur of a real dog.
- They work long hours and don’t have time to train or care for a real dog.
Koda-9 has been designed to assist its owners in a variety of ways. Here are the product’s main functions:
If you love documenting the world around you but don’t enjoy the whole selfie stick thing, Koda-9 is for you. Koda-9’s cameras snap pictures of its surroundings while it trots beside you on your journeys in an unobtrusive way. The selfie feature is also governed remotely through the owner’s phone app.
“This is the world’s first high-end robot dog who can take pictures for you with advanced, built-in camera technology,” said Russell. “The experience will have some theater to it—like how drones fly into the air to take pictures. Koda-9 also has a built-in filter to smooth out and enhance photos. In essence, think of Koda-9 as your own personal film crew to document all your travels.”
Naturally, a robot dog could never replace your beloved golden retriever. Koda-9 isn’t trying to compete with the rewarding aspects of training and bonding with a real dog. For those living in apartment buildings that don’t allow dogs though, for example, Koda-9 does provide an alternative for some daily comfort and communication.
“We hope Koda-9 will become a companion that you develop an emotional attachment to, but we have no intention to replace your chihuahua,” said Russell. “Rather than a substitution, Koda-9 is meant to simply complement your home.”
When I inquired about Koda-9’s potential use as a guide dog for people with visual impairments, Russell said the answer is a strong yes, and that the technology is already there.
Having Koda-9 communicate one’s surroundings, announce objects up ahead, and give spatial instructions for navigating an environment will provide a great service for this community. Not to mention Koda-9 could bark at others to get out of the way.
I wasn’t initially sold on the idea of a robot dog actually deterring trespassers from breaking and entering, but as Russell explained, “The dog basically serves the purpose of a mobile surveillance camera. It can walk around your yard and detect suspicious movement. It can learn who is a friend versus a stranger.”
What’s more, Koda-9 can patrol around and fill in the dead spaces your standard security cameras miss. Its cameras can also record footage of your home’s periphery that you can watch and analyze later. Koda-9 is also an alarm system of sorts that can alert the local police department if it suspects suspicious activity.
“The technology is mature,” Russell explained. “Koda-9’s owner can adjust its settings and enter different scenarios. A future version of Koda-9 might also be smart enough to differentiate between scenarios for itself.”
The Whipsaw design team took countless design variables into consideration for Koda-9, such as sensor alignment, sound functions, the degree of freedom for each leg, its head and body rotation, how to make its electronic skin tactile, and how to make Koda-9 waterproof if it jumps in your pool because, you know, dogs will be dogs.
I asked the team how they approached Koda-9’s overall aesthetic during the initial brainstorming and sketching phase.
“We received all of Koda-9’s basic requirements from the Lab after the kickoff meeting, so we knew exactly what they were looking for,” said Gu. “Based on those requirements, we came up with 15 great concepts. We always get super excited about designing robots with the potential to become market hits. Right now we’re working closely with their hardware and mechanical engineering team to develop the final concept. In three months’ time, Koda-9 will be ready for mass production.”
Companion robots have had a notoriously creepy and harsh aesthetic until now, so the Whipsaw team saw this as an opportunity to shake up this product space.
We wanted to give Koda-9 a friendlier look, befitting a fur-free companion. Our design inspiration boiled down to clean architecture with smart details.
– Wei Gu
“It was interesting to have a discussion like, ‘Are we designing a tool or a creature?’” added Nakazawa. “We also had to ask ourselves to what extent should Koda-9 actually resemble a dog? Should it be cute? Smart? Both? And furthermore, was a dog even the right metaphor?”
To that end, Nakazawa explained the Whipsaw team explored a range of concepts—from one that felt like a genuine dog, to one resembling a household device.
“We also examined what tone we wanted Koda-9 to convey. Did we want it to exude sweetness and warmth or come across as powerful and intimidating? We struck a balance between these concepts in our final design direction, and we landed on a spot where vibrant four-legged posture meets the elegance of futuristic machinery.”
Unlike other stationary electronics and home appliances, designing a robot also requires consideration over movement. After all, animation evokes life.
“We are still in the process of working through those mechanics,” noted Nakazawa. “We’re excited to work closely with the engineering team to dial in the details that will shape how Koda-9 moves and navigates its environment.”
Designing for the Future
Design is all about questioning. In addition to questions involving form, function, and user experience, many of the questions that go into creating a new type of AI are also philosophical and ethical ones.
In this case, Whipsaw questioned how to design Koda-9 as a genuine companion device that would benefit its owners in myriad ways while still not replacing their furry best friends. They also deliberated how to design Koda-9 as a surveillance product that wouldn’t jeopardize an individual’s privacy. Finally, they considered the ethical implications of creating a product with evolving AI.
In the end, these considerations will ideally allow Koda-9 to function as a device that helps tomorrow’s users feel more protected while also increasing the overall quality of their lives.
Our design of Koda-9 will set a benchmark for future robots in this space.
– Aki Nakazawa
“We believe in the future there will be more and more family robots,” said Russell. “We don’t think humanoid robots will be the mainstream, as they have been found to cause discomfort for their resemblance to domestic servants and uncanny near-humanity. Therefore, this new generation of pet helpers will be more of a welcome addition.”
“I think our design of Koda-9 will set a benchmark for future robots in this space,” concluded Nakazawa. “And we’ll keep pushing this kind of innovation to the very edge. It’s important to realize that the word ‘dog’ was just a starting point for us in the design room, and not the final answer. We are designing something entirely new.”