Sphero spinoff Misty Robotics launches a robot for programmers

Recent Sphero spinoff Misty Robotics brought a decidedly non-consumer-focused device to the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas this week. The Misty I Developer Edition is the first baby step for a startup with even grander ambitions than the one that gave birth to it. In June, the company announced a $11.5 million Series A led by Venrock and Foundry Group to aide in its plans to build a mainstream household robot with a much broader skillset than the industry leading Roomba.

An early attempt at that will arrive later this year, in the form of Misty II, a more highly-polished and commercially-minded version of the company’s robotic’s platform. For now, however, its focus is far more narrow, with plans to court developers, as it works to build something more suitable for the home market.

Misty I Developer Edition is sort of the Apple I to the Misty II’s Apple II. There will likely be a developer version of the II, but the company’s forgoing the consumer version of the I. It’s all understandably a little convoluted a first glance, but the startup’s working on getting its sea legs, as it prepares for the seemingly impossible: a home robot that can do it all. In a briefing in a hotel suite at CES this week, CEO Tim Enwall and Head of Product Ian Bernstein laid out a fairly grandiose roadmap for me.

It’s a ten-year plan, according to Enwall, and the startup’s investors have apparently agreed to that extremely long runway. After all, someone has to bring robots into the mainstream, right? So why not Misty? Bernstein was the founder and CTO of Sphero, which quickly moved from remote control ball to Disney darling, and Enwall headed up Revolv, which ultimately got sucked up into Google/Nest.

There’s a small army of Misty I’s in the hotel suite when we meet the team. Bernstein puts one on the floor and fires it up. It has the body type of ET: The Extraterrestrial, balanced on four wheels and constructed out a black plastic exoskeleton, that’s maybe a touch more Xenomorph. As Misty (referred to primarily as a “she” by her creators) fires up, a pair of dots inside two brackets simulate some semblance of eyes on what resembles a blue screen of death. 

When fully operational, the eyes are a bit more lifelike, though still early stages. There’s nothing here akin to the animated personality Anki has developed for Cozmo by assembling a team of animators from places like Pixar and Dreamworks. In fact, much about this first Misty model is rudimentary, and that’s kind of the point. The robot fills a similar role as Willow Garage’s bygone Turtlebot or iRobot’s Create, offering developers a way to build ideas on a robotics platform.

It’s a far more limited offering, however. Enwall tells me that it takes his team four to six hours to build a unit, totaling around five to ten units a week. It’s not exactly a sound business model in the long term. Instead, the company will be vetting potential developers through its online platform, and hopefully building up an ecosystem of software ahead of the Misty II’s launch.

Bernstein walks us through some of the quick and dirty features early developers have programmed in at a recent hackathon. In the most compelling demo, Misty I uses her on-board camera and facial recognition to detect people. When she sees them, she zips back on her wheels as if startled. It’s a far cry from the security and smart home connectivity planned for its already announced successor, but it’s a start.

Fittingly, it all feels a bit like watching a baby takes its first tenuous steps. It’s the first public-facing movements of a startup that has a long road of ahead of it — a prospect that’s at once frightening and hopeful.

Published at Thu, 11 Jan 2018 11:00:16 +0000