Amazon’s Astro home robot remains elusive six months after debut


  • Robotics
  • Wednesday, 23 Feb 2022

Six months later, Astro is tough to find. Hardly anyone is talking about the robot – which is confounding because early adopters typically love to share their experiences online. — AFP

Last September, Amazon.com Inc debuted a household robot named Astro that was supposed to usher in – or at least point to – a Jetsons-like future.

Fifty-three minutes into a press conference otherwise focused on new Ring cameras, a thermostat and a giant Echo speaker with a wall screen, the three-wheeled robot rolled out on stage at the command of Amazon devices chief Dave Limp. With Astro looking on, Limp ticked off the gadget’s attributes: advanced computer vision that lets the bot know where it is, home monitoring, media playback and the ability to summon emergency help for elders.

Astro would eventually sell for about US$1,450 (RM6,068), but Limp said people lucky enough to score an invitation could get their hands on one for US$1,000 (RM4,185) – or about the price of an iPhone 13 Pro – and test it out at home.

In a video presentation of the unveiling, Henrik Christensen, a computer science and robotics professor at the University of California at San Diego, said, “Astro is a huge step forward. The next question will be: ‘When should I get one?’”

A more apt question might have been: When can I get one?

Six months later, Astro is tough to find. Hardly anyone is talking about the robot – which is confounding because early adopters typically love to share their experiences online. A scan for Astro users on YouTube, Twitter and Instagram turned up just two people, who posted brief videos of the bot. Turns out Amazon has so far shipped at most a few hundred Astros, according to people familiar with the situation.

Still, Bloomberg News was able to track one down. It belongs to Matthew Nereim, a fifth-grade teacher and former high-school wrestling champion who lives near Orlando, Florida. Nereim is a self-described Amazon fan, who uses Prime religiously, buys almost all of the company’s gadgets and has several Echo smart speakers stationed around his home.

After getting an invite for the Astro, Nereim recalls, “I was like, ‘Hell yeah, I have to have it.’” He received the device in December and, after a couple months of use, is intrigued but not convinced consumers will bite at the official retail price. “If it was US$1,500 (RM6,278), would I have bought it?” Nereim said. “No. But it was US$1,000 (RM4,185), and I was hyped for it. I felt like I could afford US$1,000 (RM4,185), but I certainly don’t need it. I think the sweet spot for this device is around US$700 (RM2,929).”

Nereim said that while he doesn’t use the Astro as much as he’d like, he enjoys controlling the bot from his phone remotely and driving it up to his Labrador retriever, Cooper, and chatting with the dog from work. He also likes getting Astro to follow him around his home, playing music, taking Alexa commands and carrying around a mixed drink in one of its onboard cup holders. “It’s like your little own R2-D2,” he said. “My friends and family think it’s hilarious. They say: ‘This thing follows you?!’”

Nereim acknowledged Astro isn’t perfect. Navigation can be sluggish when controlled over a cellular network, the robot sometimes can’t locate its charging base, and it often gets stuck when approaching stairs – struggling to figure how to proceed without taking a tumble. Amazon is keen to hear such feedback so it can improve the product and sends users surveys, although Nereim hasn’t participated because doing so isn’t mandatory.

Bloomberg first reported Amazon was developing a home robot in 2018 and that development ramped up the following year. Hundreds of employees have now spent four years toiling on what the company calls a “Day 1 Edition device”, whose primary objective is to generate customer feedback. It’s a familiar playbook. In 2019, Amazon announced a smart ring and glasses that worked with Alexa and invited a select group of customers to test them out. The ring has been discontinued, while the glasses are now on sale as Echo Frames for US$250 (RM1,046) a pair and have a four-star rating based on about 3,000 reviews.

In response to questions about Astro, an Amazon spokesman said that “invite requests and customer orders have been significantly above our expectations”. He wouldn’t provide numbers but said shipments were in line with the company’s plans and would “continue to ramp over the coming weeks and months”. The spokesman said Amazon is receiving positive feedback and “learning a lot about how customers want to use a consumer robot”.

Amazon expects Astro will eventually drop its “Day 1” status, but the spokesman said “it’s too early to say when that may happen”. The company is already talking up future models and sees Astro as “our first robot, not our last”. – Bloomberg

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