Hoaloha Robotics’ founder on how robots can serve a growing senior population

Tandy Trower

Tandy Trower

Hoaloha Robotics founder Tandy Trower spent 28 years at Microsoft (s msft), during which time he managed Windows 1.0 and 2.0 before being appointed as a member of Bill Gates’ strategic staff. He began developing connections with people from across the robotics industry and became fascinated by a question: How will the U.S. take care of a growing senior population?

The answer could be assistive care robots that serve a range of tasks, from carrying objects to reminding someone to take their medicine. When outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer couldn’t find room for Trower’s robotics goals within Microsoft, Trower split off and formed Hoaloha Robotics.

IEEE Spectrum noted last week that Trower posted an update detailing the company’s move toward developing its own hardware. After initially focusing on software, Trower found that there weren’t any options that met the price, usability and safety needs for Hoaloha’s particular market. Hoaloha is now two years into developing an assistive care robot and its affiliated software. In two to three more years, it is likely to have it ready for a price tag between $5,000 and $10,000.

In an interview last week, Trower filled me in on his thoughts about the industry and Hoaloha’s philosophy.

What are the challenges associated with building an assistive care robot?

While there is all this excitement about robots, the fact of the matter is they’re not here yet. If it was all simple to do, these kind of products would be on the market already. The only robots we see in a personal or consumer way are just toys or consumer gadgets today. It’s very difficult to put it all together in the right way. The hardware is actually the easier part of the equation. It’s the software and the applications that provide … why would you want to have this robot in your home.

How did you approach robot interaction?

A concept of the Hoaloha robot published by Robosoft in 2010.

A concept of the Hoaloha robot published by Robosoft in 2010.

For us, the highest priority is the design of the interaction. This is after all what enabled Apple to succeed with first the iPhone and the iPad. They weren’t the first ones out there, but they came out with products that users loved.

The challenge is even greater for my market because as we age our muscles tend to weaken and our ability to articulate clearly may be impaired. We tend to speak more slowly and possibly with less precise definition; all things that speech recognition engines are generally not tuned to. This is why initially I considered not using speech, but using touch on the tablet as the primary interface. But I was quickly defeated when users avoided my careful instructions and trying to talk to our robot. So now we do both.

But conversation isn’t just about recognizing words, it is an exchange of information that also includes visual cues like head nods or shakes or other visible attributes. For example, when a speaker begins talking at the beginning of his/her turn, the eyes tend to drift off of the listener, but then return as they finish. That way the listener knows their potential turn to respond is coming. Speech recognition engines know nothing about this. The social nuances we use can be very subtle and are reflected in our face and our body language.

What makes a robot successful?

The key is my colleagues in the robotics industry need to focus not on creating the latest greatest technology, but how to create a form that is both affordable and useable by the average person. That really hasn’t happened yet. That’s why we see so few robots in the consumer marketplace today. They haven’t been thought about with the right applications.

You can’t just create the most elaborate platform out there and hope it sells. I truly believe the most important thing is the way people interact with the robot. That’s so often forgot in the rest of the robots you see demonstrated today. It’s the same thing (Roomba creator) iRobot did that made them successful. There were more elaborate robots on the market.

iRobot's Roomba 780 home vacuum robot. Photo courtesy of iRobot.

iRobot’s Roomba 780 home vacuum robot. Photo courtesy of iRobot.

What role should an assistive care robot play?

We aren’t trying to replace human caregivers. We believe that facilitating social interaction with other people is an important role for our robot. What we are doing is augmenting or empowering users to be more independent, active and creative, and able to continue to function despite the limitations we may face as we age. In this way our robot is no more a replacement for another person than your PC, smartphone or tablet. These are devices you and I use everyday to help us remembering important things, keep informed, communicate with others and even entertain ourselves despite the physical and cognitive limitations we have. So all our robot is is a new evolved form of the same technology, designed to make interaction more natural and easier, especially for that segment of our population that may need some extra support.

Why will they be increasingly important?

You have a large volume of people who really want to continue living independently. They are the baby boomers who have always prided themselves on being a very active generation. These are people who are going to want to contribute even more than their parents way into their senior years. The reality is there is just not going to be enough people to take care of us, so we better be able to take care of ourselves.