Apple explores home robotics as next big thing

Tech titan: The Apple logo is displayed on a monitor outside the Nasdaq MarketSite in New York. The firm is under growing pressure to find new sources of revenue. — Bloomberg

LOS ANGELES: Apple Inc has teams investigating a push into personal robotics, a field with the potential to become one of the company’s ever-shifting “next big things,” according to people familiar with the situation.

Engineers at Apple have been exploring a mobile robot that can follow users around their homes, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the skunk-works project is private.

The iPhone maker also has developed an advanced table-top home device that uses robotics to move a display around, they said.

Though the effort is still in the beginning stages – and it’s unclear if the products will ultimately be released – Apple is under growing pressure to find new sources of revenue.

It scrapped an electric vehicle project in February, and a push into mixed-reality goggles is expected to take years to become a major moneymaker.

With robotics, Apple could gain a bigger foothold in consumers’ homes and capitalise on advances in artificial intelligence (AI). But it’s not yet clear what approach it might take.

Though the robotic smart display is much further along than the mobile bot, it has been added and removed from the company’s product road map over the years, according to the people.

The robotics work is happening within Apple’s hardware engineering division and its AI and machine-learning group, which is run by John Giannandrea. Matt Costello and Brian Lynch – two executives focused on home products – have overseen the hardware development.

Still, Apple hasn’t committed to either project as a company, and the work is still considered to be in the early research phase. A spokeswoman declined to comment.

Apple investors reacted coolly to the news, with the stock paring earlier gains after Bloomberg reported on the robotics work. It was up less than 1% at US$169.65 at the close in New York.

Shares of Roomba maker iRobot Corp, meanwhile, briefly jumped as much as 17% – a sign investors thought it might benefit from Apple’s interest in the field.

But the rally faded, and the stock gained less than 2% by the close.

Before the EV project was cancelled, Apple told its top executives that the company’s future revolved around three areas: automotive, the home and mixed reality.

But now, the car isn’t happening and Apple has already released its first mixed-reality product, the Vision Pro headset. So the focus has shifted to other future opportunities, including how Apple can better compete in the smart home market.

The table-top robotics project first excited senior Apple executives a few years ago, including hardware engineering chief John Ternus and members of the industrial design team.

The idea was to have the display mimic the head movements – such as nodding – of a person on a FaceTime session. It would also have features to precisely lock on to a single person among a crowd during a video call.

But the company has been concerned about whether consumers would be willing to pay top dollar for such a device.

There have also been technical challenges related to balancing the weight of a robotic motor on a small stand. The primary obstacle has been disagreement among Apple executives over whether to move forward with the product at all, according to the people.

Near its campus in Cupertino, California, Apple has a secret facility that resembles the inside of a house – a site where it can test future devices and initiatives for the home. Apple has been exploring a new home hub device with an iPad-like display. — Bloomberg

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