In the near future, if you call the front desk from your hotel room because you're in need of a toothbrush or other assorted sundry, you might find a 3-foot-tall non-human when you open your door for your delivery. In what appears to be a first, a robot butler reported for duty last week at Aloft Cupertino, a hotel in the heart of the Silicon Valley.
The SaviOne robot, which Aloft has dubbed "ALO" (pronounced "el-lo"), sports a Star Wars R2D2 look, with Aloft's model fancied up with a painted-on butler collar. ALO is currently the sole robot on duty; however, it will soon be joined by a fellow "botlr." "Based on the success of the pilot, we will look to roll out at our nearly 100 hotels around the world in 2015 and beyond," Brian McGuinness of Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide (NYSE: HOT ) , the chain's parent company, told TechCrunch.
How does the process work?
Let's say that you call the front desk requesting that toothbrush or a spare towel. An employee loads the enclosure at the top of the bot with the item(s) and enters your room number. Despite being just 3 feet tall, SaviOne has a fairly good-sized carrying capacity of 2 cubic feet -- so you might want to have the front desk attendant throw in a snack, too.
The robotic butler then rolls on its way, at a human walking pace. It negotiates elevators by communicating with them via WiFi. Other guests need not fear that they'll be run over because of your forgetfulness, clean fetish, or hunger -- a combination of lasers, cameras, and sonar wave technology allows the robot butler to avoid obstacles. The tech sounds somewhat similar to what some companies are exploring for self-driving cars.
SaviOne will phone you once it arrives. The bot will know when you've come to your door, as its camera watches for the door to open. It then unlocks its lid to provide onscreen instructions so you know how to remove your item(s). The robotic butler then returns to the front desk.
A picture and description don't do justice, so here's the SaviOne in action:
OK, fun, but surely the business-minded among you want to know who makes this worker that is ready to toil uncomplainingly around the clock.
Meet Savioke: the company behind the robot butler
Savioke (pronounced "savvy oak"), founded in 2013, isn't just one of the many start-ups throwing their hats in the fast-evolving robotics ring. The company has an impressive pedigree -- it's led by Steve Cousins, the former CEO of the now-defunct but influential Willow Garage robotics start-up.
Additionally, the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company raked in $2 million in seed round funding in April from Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL ) (NASDAQ: GOOG ) Ventures, Jerry Yang's AME Cloud Ventures, Morado Venture Partners, and other individual investors. Yang is the co-founder and former CEO of Yahoo!
Under Cousins, Willow Garage developed the open-source robot operating system ROS, upon which SaviOne is built. Additionally, it spun off eight start-ups, including two -- Industrial Perception and Redwood Robotics – that Google acquired in 2013.
According to its website, Savioke's initial aim is "to revolutionize the way things move in hotels, elder care facilities, hospitals, restaurants ... anywhere people sleep or eat." However, its ambitions don't appear to stop at delivery robots, as the company's larger goal is to "improve the lives of people by developing and deploying robotic technology in human environments -- the places people live and work."
While Savioke is still in its early days, an eventual acquisition by Google or an IPO is certainly within the realm of possibilities. The big G has been on a robotics company buying spree since last year, when it gobbled up at least eight companies. Boston Dynamics, maker of the Atlas humanoid robot, and Shaft, which took first place in DARPA's Robotics Challenge Trials last December, are two of its better-known robotics acquisitions. Google's continued "robot-ing" it up in 2014, with such buys as Titan Aerospace, which makes high-flying drones.
Google's not alone, as its fellow big tech brethren Amazon.com, Apple, and Facebook have also been acquiring robotics companies.
To my knowledge, iRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT ) -- best known for its consumer cleaning bots, though it's recently entered the medical and commercial markets -- is the only pure-play non-industrial-focused robotics company trading on a major U.S. stock exchange. So an eventual IPO by Savioke would put it in rarefied company.
The Foolish takeaway
Whether or not robot butlers eventually help Starwood's -- and other hotels' -- top and/or bottom lines remains to be seen. And what Savioke's future holds is also an unknown. However, one thing is for certain: The robotics revolution has arrived, and we're sure to see robots increasingly being "hired" for more service jobs.
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