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Apple Bets Big on Robots After Car Crash

Last Updated April 4, 2024 11:57 AM
Giuseppe Ciccomascolo
Last Updated April 4, 2024 11:57 AM

Key Takeaways

  • After abandoning the electric vehicle project, Apple is exploring personal robotics as a potential new revenue stream.
  • Apple is investigating two robotics concepts but both are in the early stages of development.
  • Existing players like Amazon’s Astro and the iconic Roomba vacuum cleaner already occupy the home robot space.

Apple has dedicated teams exploring entry into personal robotics, which could emerge as one of the company’s dynamic “next big things,” as indicated  by individuals familiar with the matter.

Despite having invested several years into the electric vehicles sector, the company recently withdrew from it. However, it looks like these two decisions are not interconnected.

Apple Focuses On Robots

Apple engineers have been exploring the development of a mobile robot capable of trailing users within their residences, according  to sources. Additionally, the tech giant has devised an advanced tabletop home device that utilizes robotics to maneuver a display around.

Although these endeavors are in their early stages, and the eventual release of the products remains uncertain, Apple faces mounting pressure to identify fresh revenue streams. Following the abandonment of an electric vehicle project in February, the anticipated profitability of a foray into mixed-reality goggles is expected to materialize over several years.

By delving into robotics, Apple could potentially expand its presence within consumers’ households and leverage advancements in artificial intelligence (AI). However, the precise approach the company may adopt remains unclear. While progress on the robotic smart display is more advanced compared to the mobile bot, the former has encountered fluctuations in its inclusion on the company’s product roadmap over the years, according to insiders.

The robotics initiatives are being spearheaded within Apple‘s hardware engineering division and its AI and machine-learning group, overseen by John Giannandrea. Matt Costello and Brian Lynch, executives focused on home products, have led the hardware development efforts. Nonetheless, Apple has yet to commit to either project on a corporate level. Furthermore, the initiatives are still in the preliminary research phase. A spokesperson declined to provide further comment.

A Decision Older Than EV Exit

Apple had based its strategic focus on three key areas: automotive, home technology, and mixed reality. However, with the discontinuation of the car initiative and the release of its inaugural mixed-reality product, the Vision Pro headset, Apple has shifted its attention to other prospective opportunities. In particular, it aimed to enhance its competitiveness in the smart home market.

A few years back, Apple’s top executives, including hardware engineering chief John Ternus and members of the industrial design team, were fascinated by a tabletop robotics project. It aimed to create a display that mimicked individuals’ head movements during FaceTime sessions. And could precisely track and focus on a single person in a crowd during video calls.

However, concerns have arisen regarding consumer willingness to pay a premium for such a device, as well as technical hurdles associated with balancing the weight of a robotic motor on a compact stand. Disagreements among Apple executives regarding the project’s viability have further complicated progress, according to insiders.

Adjacent to its Cupertino campus in California, Apple maintains a clandestine facility designed to emulate a residential environment for testing future home devices and initiatives. The company has explored alternative concepts for the home market, including a novel home hub device featuring an iPad-like display.

Apple’s relentless pursuit of the “next big thing” has been a longstanding ethos since the Steve Jobs era. Yet, it has become increasingly challenging to envision a product capable of replicating the monumental success of the iPhone, which contributed to 5% of the company’s $383.3 billion in sales last year.

Who Are Apple’s Competitors Here?

Should Apple‘s endeavors progress, it would not mark the first instance of a major tech corporation delving into home robotics. Amazon.com introduced its Astro model in 2021, priced at $1,600. But it faced challenges in scaling up production, rendering it a niche product. Additionally, Amazon unveiled a business-oriented iteration of the rolling bot last year, intended for security purposes.

One of the most recognizable home robots to date is the Roomba vacuum, which debuted over twenty years ago. While Amazon had proposed acquiring iRobot in 2022, regulatory hurdles thwarted the acquisition. Other companies have also explored the concept of humanoid robots emulating human size and movements.

Despite the setbacks encountered in Apple’s automotive venture, it served as a springboard for subsequent initiatives. For instance, the neural engine, Apple’s AI chip featured in iPhones and Macs, initially stemmed from automotive research. Moreover, the groundwork laid by the automotive project contributed to the development of the Vision Pro, with Apple exploring virtual reality applications in vehicular contexts.

The genesis of Apple’s robotics endeavors traces back to its Titan car project circa 2019, under the leadership of Doug Field. He is now a senior executive in Ford Motor Co.’s electric vehicle division.

Concurrently, automotive manufacturers like Mercedes, BMW, and Tesla increasingly integrate humanoid robots into their factories. They try to automate repetitive and physically demanding tasks such as part delivery and inspection.

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