Social robot Jibo, created by MIT roboticist, aims to be as widespread as smartphones

He's a cameraman and a personal assistant. He reads bedtime stories to your kids and can connect you with family and friends on different parts of the planet. And at 11 inches tall, he'll be priced similar to an iPad.jibo-300x200

He's Jibo the social robot, the brainchild of MIT roboticist Cynthia Breazeal, who has been working full-time, and secretively, on the company since she took professional leave from MIT last November.

Venture-backed Jibo Inc., headquartered in Weston, was unveiled Wednesday corresponding with the launch of an online crowdfunding campaign where customers can pre-order the robot for $499 and have it shipped to them in late 2015.

Breazeal, who has spent more than a decade researching social robots, isn't restrained when she talks about plans for Jibo, billed as "the world's first family robot." She envisions Jibo being used by people all over the world, in homes and institutions ranging from hospitals to senior living facilities.

"The way you have smartphones and tablets everywhere, you're going to see Jibos everywhere," she said in an interview.

Photographer, storyteller, messenger and more

At 6 pounds in weight and 11 inches in height, the robot is capable of many tasks. It acts as an "on-demand cameraman," picking up on cues like movement, speech commands and smiles to know when someone's posing for a picture. Breazeal says that's important for any parent who wants to be in a photo with their family as opposed to constantly being the designated photographer.

Jibo is also connected to a mobile app for iOS and Android. Users can ask Jibo to take voicemails or remind them of things they need to do. "Since he recognizes you and each member of your household, and can interact with natural social cues, Jibo can deliver the right messages to the right people at the right time," according to a company release.

The robot includes a "see-and-track camera" that makes eye contact with people in a room. For example, a person can video chat with their family and click on a family member's face, telling Jibo to turn its camera and focus on that person.

Because Jibo's target demographic is households and institutions, Breazeal said it was important for the social robot to be warm and anthropomorphic, which is why the robot is referred to by the company as a "he" and features a congenial voice.

"It's about the people," said Breazeal, also the founder and director of the Personal Robots Group at the MIT Media Lab. "The first technology that can really forge that relationship with the family is going to forever have a competitive advantage against anything else that comes in the house."

See video above of Cynthia Breazeal talking about why Jibo's voice is male and other aspects of the robot.

Company history

Founded in late 2012, Jibo Inc. is backed by about $5 million in funding from investors including CRV, formerly known as Charles River Ventures, with offices in Cambridge and Silicon Valley, and Cambridge-based Fairhaven Capital.

Jibo Inc. is aiming to raise another $100,000 from the online crowdfunding campaign and also wants to use the campaign as a way to finalize the official retail price. Breazeal said the retail price will be similar to a high-end tablet.

The robot is also available for professional developers who aim to create new applications for the robot. The developer package can be pre-ordered on for $599.

The company is based in Weston, has offices in San Francisco, and its total headcount is about 10. Weston is home to the "robot secret-sauce team," as Breazeal likes to call it, which includes luminaries from iRobot, Disney and Symantec who have been working on Jibo for several months.

San Francisco is home to Jibo's vice president of engineering, Andy Atkins, who was formerly the director of engineering at Netflix, and several speech specialists are also based there.

The company's team of employees has helped make Jibo more than just a robot, Breazeal said. Jibo is meant to be a useful, artificially intelligent assistant in busy households, but also meant for people — ranging from children to the elderly — who might need a bit more companionship, or an "emotional connection," she said.

"There are areas where social support and feeling like you have support of presence really make a big difference for people," she said. "Data alone and information alone isn't enough."


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