Once robots started to emerge from industrial environments and appear in social spaces, consumer opinion about them changed significantly. The field of personal service robots, also called household robotics, is rapidly expanding and is forecast to grow even more in the coming years. Like home appliances, domestic robots are poised to become part of our everyday lives. However, robot makers cannot build a domestic robot based solely on laboratory research. In order to actually sell the robot, they need a clear understanding of consumer perceptions, acceptance levels, worries, and reservations. Robot makers have a long list of critical questions they need to address before jumping into the domestic robot ecosystem.
From a definition standpoint, in Tractica’s recently-published report on Consumer Robotics, we defined household robots as including robotic vacuum cleaners, robotic lawn mowers, robotic pool cleaners, and robotic personal assistants. Robotic vacuum cleaners include both floor cleaners and window cleaners. Robotic personal assistants are defined as stationary or mobile robots, both humanoid and non-humanoid, that act as companions in the household, with the ability to communicate with humans using voice or movement. While toy and educational robots are a closely-related category within the consumer robotics sector, we do not include them in our definition of household robots.
Tractica forecasts that shipments of household robots will increase from 4.3 million per year in 2015 to 19.3 million units worldwide by 2020. During the same period, revenue for the total consumer robotics market will rise from $3.1 billion to more than $10.4 billion.
A few of the more pertinent questions surrounding consumer demand for household robots are explored below.
Is There a Real Need and What Is the Right Price?
Considering the significant increase in popularity of household robots among consumers, enthusiastic robot makers are certain they can sell an impressive quantity of new lines of household robots to consumers within the next few years. However, several consumer research surveys, such as one published by Eurobarometer, suggest a different case.
While a household robot appears to be useful for many consumers, actually buying one remains a desire, not a need. Consumers can continue to live without household robots and invest in other more economical alternatives, such as smartphones or home gadgets. According to the survey, only one out of five potential consumers will consider purchasing a robot for their home, whereas others are not ready for it, will think about it in future, or are not at all interested. The majority of consumers who might be interested are aware of the technology. If they are already using cleaning robots in their homes, their expectations have likely expanded and they want new robots with additional capabilities.
Current market pricing for an advanced domestic robot is somewhere between $1,000 and $3,000 depending on the robot’s features and functionality. However, according to Tractica’s research, especially for personal assistant robots, a price tag of $500 to $700 is the sweet spot for consumers today, similar to the price of a consumer-grade laptop. However, in the future, we believe this price needs to go down to $300 – essentially the cost of a smartphone – for robots to become a mass-market phenomenon. For a fully-equipped household robot that can do all the chores and be a personal assistant, the price would be much higher, but we do not expect to see such offerings in the market anytime soon.
Some consumers are also looking for financing options like loans, leasing programs, and financial incentives to entice them to purchase a robot. The market for domestic robots that cost more than $15,000 is limited to a very small pocket of elite consumers and does not offer great potential.
What Key Activities Should a Household Robot Perform?
At this stage, consumers are looking at domestic robots as helpers or domestic servants in their households that can perform domestic chores like cleaning floors, wiping windows, doing laundry, preparing food, and moving heavy objects. Some consumers would like a domestic robot to be their personal assistant to remind them of appointments or medical routines, teach them how to use new technology, make food suggestions, and help with climbing stairs or exercising. It is important to note that consumers expect very pragmatic help from robots and just a few are willing to see the robots as coworkers or friends in domestic situations.
Many consumers are uncomfortable with having a domestic robot for babysitting children, caring the pets, or providing intimate services. Also, domestic robots merely made for entertainment and fun will not impress consumers when they have the choice to select alternative smart technologies for similar activities. With that said, Tractica believes that companionship is likely to be one of the key areas for personal assistant robots, especially as technology capabilities continue to improve in areas like speech recognition, image recognition, and emotion recognition. Many of the use cases will center on elderly care, but we believe there will also be applications for younger or middle aged people who live alone.
How Important Are Appearance and Communication?
Domestic robots can have anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, caricatured, and functionally designed appearances, or be a hybrid variety. An anthropomorphic robot has a human-like body or is humanoid, a zoomorphic robot looks like an animal, a caricatured robot is focused on very a specific attribute like a mouth or eyes, and a functional robot is technically designed to perform a task in the most effective manner possible. Robot appearances play a significant role in the domestic environment, but can vary according to cultural context. For instance, consumers in Europe prefer that domestic robots do not look like living beings, whether human or animal, and are more satisfied with functionally designed robots.
Apart from the appearance that consumers are willing to accept, there is a strong preference for robots with a natural communication mode like speech, which should be a clear human-like voice. Highly autonomous robots are not desired, as consumers want clear control over the robot at any given point in time.
Do Consumers Really Like Robots?
Consumers worldwide generally react positively about the idea of household robots that can do household tasks. The majority believes that robots are good for society and necessary, because they can do jobs that are too dangerous for people. While consumers are okay with robots, they still want to be able to easily control and manage them. In general, the attitude is positive, but there is one issue. The consumer who is already using a household robot in their home feels disengaged with the robot after using it for some time, which might affect their decision to buy a new robot.
Consumers may want to own domestic robots, but they are not willing to pay a lot. They clearly see the potential of a robot as a servant and assistant, but friendship is more of a stretch. Over time, we see robot assistants becoming friends or companions as speech, image, and emotion recognition become more advanced. Some consumers in China have been growing more intimate with text-based bots, and we believe this phenomenon will transition to humanoid robots, as well.
When it comes to domestic responsibilities, consumers prefer to have robots perform household chores over child or animal care. The robot should communicate like a human, but not necessarily appear and behave like a human. The issue of consumers becoming disengaged with robots will take some time to resolve. Other important questions, such as accepting robots in very private spaces and having comfortable interactions, still need investigation. While much thought has gone into matching robots with industrial environments, seriously contemplating the issues outlined above is the first step to successfully matching robots with domestic and cultural environments.