Amazon has your future mapped out: Are you ready for it?
My kid is talking with his grandmother in England over a tower-shaped screen sitting on the kitchen table, as he plays a game projected on the surface. Granny looks on, smiling. I’m busy petting my robot dog, which just scooted over to tell me that someone’s in the backyard. Meanwhile, my phone is showing me a feed of my living room from the flying camera drone that’s hovering there. That’s the sci-fi vision of my future that Amazon showed off at its fall hardware event, and it’s coming this year. But it also has a very familiar… ring to it.
Amazon announces house robot ‘Astro’ and new Ring, Alexa…
Amazon’s future pipeline now seems to be unrolling at a rapid pace, all in the form of experimental, opt-in, invite-only products. The $1,000 Astro robot, arriving by the end of the year, is the marquee piece of future tech. But don’t forget that $250 hovering home camera drone, the Always Home Cam, that can zoom through your house and auto-dock itself when it’s done, or the Amazon Glow, a smart screen-meets-projected-virtual-tablet.
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Perhaps we should have noticed right off the bat that the Kindle at the beginning of Amazon’s September product event was turned to the opening of Ready Player One. Or, that Gregg Zehr, president of Amazon’s hardware and products innovation-focused Lab126, said later on in the video presentation, “The question wasn’t should we build it, but why wouldn’t we?”
“This is our first robot, not our last robot,” Zehr later added.
In fact, Amazon couldn’t help referencing the inevitable sequel: “Astro 2 will get smarter and more capable over time,” Amazon SVP of Devices and Services Dave Limp said at the end.
Science fiction is clearly a leaping-off point for Amazon’s next wave of product ideas. Suri Maddhula, director of software for Amazon’s Astro, even said as much: “It’s taking science fiction and making it a reality.” The Ready Player One reference at the start of Amazon’s event rang such a familiar bell because that book was a similar science fiction reference point for Facebook and Oculus’ execution of VR.
The vibe with these products, of bold and possibly overreaching experimentation, can bring up dystopias real fast. Or Jurassic Park: move fast, make the future. After all, why wasn’t the question “should we build it?” Based on what Amazon’s Astro designers said, the clear belief is that robots are coming regardless. And certainly, there have already been plenty of home robots with similar ambitions and room-scanning, telepresence capabilities. Maybe none as advanced as Astro, or as well thought-out. But much like that still-in-progress evolution of VR, the future’s been there for a while.
What about the beta feel of these opt-in products? The chance to buy an Astro robot is invitation-only. Same with the Amazon Glow, or the Ring Always Home Cam drone. This is how Amazon rolls out future products-to-be, and tests them in the public before possible general release later on: the Halo fitness band, or its Echo Frames glasses, or its Echo Loop smart ring, even the original Echo.
I signed up for a chance to buy the drone, and got a sense of the unknowns: a survey asked if I had chandeliers, or high ceilings, or narrow doors, or different-colored floors. Do I have kids? I wondered: How many parts of my life might case complications?
But as Amazon’s ambitions become clearly even more ambient, relying on a network of cameras, microphones and sensors everywhere to gather information and relay it to me and others, it does feel unsettling. An always-on ambient computing future can feel that way.
Fast-forward all the way to a Ray Bradbury-style smart home that lives and breathes and sees, and maybe you have There Will Come Soft Rains, or even The Veldt. These things hearken to Black Mirror episodes galore. Pick your favorite sci-fi vision. Amazon clearly has, already leaning on classic robot fantasies (Astro, The Jetsons) for its home robot. The Glow makes me think of something that would have been in Kubrick’s 2001.
Maybe it’s these sci-fi visions that help get these things into homes in the first place. Feeling like you’re in Ready Player One or The Matrix when you use VR, or Tony Stark wearing smartglasses. Yes, these future visions are all flawed, full of warnings and danger. But there’s a reason why the idea of Jurassic Park was so tempting in the first place. (Look: dinosaurs!)
Amazon’s greatest challenge isn’t dreaming up wonder-inducing gadgets. It’s about balancing that against very real and problematic privacy concerns, and how these devices can feel like they’re becoming big tech umbrellas over our every living moment. For now, the robot’s an experiment. So’s the drone, and the glowing projecting tablet. What comes next? I’m not sure I want a robot, a drone, a projecting device in my everyday home. But I used to feel that way about VR, too. I guess that’s what Amazon’s experimental approach is all about: taking us to its future in deceptively small steps. I’d just like a much clearer delineation between the dinosaur wonder and the concerns about the park.
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