When iRobot Corporation (NASDAQ:IRBT) announced fourth-quarter results earlier this month, its founder and CEO Colin Angle offered a single sentence in the press release that piqued my interest. Angle promised, "2015 will be an important year for iRobot as we begin to roll out and monetize investments we have been making in crucial robotic technology."
Coincidentally, Angle's comments came only a few days after I wrote an article to explore how iRobot invests the tens of millions of dollars it pours into research and development each year. But it speaks volumes that Angle -- who is notoriously cautious in predicting time frames for advancements in commercial robotics -- was finally comfortable enough to say iRobot intends to "roll out and monetize" some of these new technologies in 2015.
Luckily for us, he elaborated on exactly what they are during iRobot's subsequent earnings conference call.
1. Visual navigation
First, Angle singled out visual simultaneous localization and mapping, or vSLAM. This involves the integration of low-cost cameras and cutting-edge software algorithms to help robots navigate and build visual maps of their surroundings in real time.
This wasn't a complete surprise. I first wrote about vSLAM when iRobot cited crucial patents for the technology as a primary reason for its acquisition of Evolution Robotics in late 2012. Then last May, I voiced my excitement when Angle vaguely promised iRobot would soon use vSLAM to "usher in a new generation of navigating robots."
But more important this time is that Angle elaborated that 2015 will feature "incorporation of next generation navigation technology more broadly into our home products."
He was careful, however, to later remind analysts that iRobot hasn't confirmed a vSLAM-enabled Roomba yet. But considering Roomba generates the vast majority of iRobot's revenue -- with home robots expected to account for 90% of total sales this year -- the slick little vacuums would seem a logical candidate for vSLAM given their comparatively blind reliance on bumpers, infrared sensors, and acoustic feedback.
2. Tablet interfaces with smart radio networks
iRobot also surprised investors by stating its Defense & Security business exited 2014 with a strong backlog, and is positioned to enjoy its first year-over-year growth in sales since 2011. That's where iRobot's new uPoint tablet-based interface comes into play.
iRobot first gave investors a look at the sophisticated mobile interface last year, signaling a universal, Android-based replacement for the specialized controllers previously required to operate each of its D&S machines. Here's an introductory video iRobot posted for uPoint in October:
iRobot says uPoint will start shipping in 2015, which, in turn, should bolster Defense & Security sales and extend its industry leadership position.
3. Integration with the cloud
Finally, note that the video above describes several ways uPoint utilizes the cloud, from sharing data with remote teammates to uploading video evidence to the Internet. But this is just the beginning of iRobot's cloud capabilities.
You might recall iRobot's Ava 500 telepresence platform -- launched this past April -- is already capable of autonomously building maps of its environment, allowing it to navigate any given building after an initial exploratory session. But Angle made a curious reference in this month's call to the "optimization of Ava's mapping technology through scalability."
Angle went on to say that, "Over the next year, we expect this mapping capability, coupled with Internet connectivity, to move us from a leader in the robot vacuum cleaner market to a technology company developing navigation connected devices for the home."
But what does that mean? In an interview last year with MIT Technology Review, iRobot chief technology officer Paolo Pirjanian spoke briefly about how crucial navigation is for enabling robots to perform more tasks in our homes. He explained:
A high-fidelity map will require a lot of storage. And it's not possible to conceive a system that would let a robot understand hundreds of thousands of objects. But the cloud can have all that knowledge. A robot can use the cloud to start learning things about its environment. For example, this object is a cup and so I have to grab it like this; it looks like it's a glass so I need to grip it tight enough so it doesn't slip but not too hard so it breaks.
This also speaks to iRobot's efforts to develop versatile manipulating hands, which would open up a slew of possibilities for robots performing additional chores both in and outside the home. I'm not holding my breath for iRobot to release a Roomba with arms this year, but I will be watching closely for other ways, in addition to Ava and uPoint, that iRobot looks to monetize the cloud for robots in the home in 2015.