Want a Droid? Here’s the First One!

It can respond to your voice, read children’s stories, and follow you around the house.

If you’re an Amazon Echo owner but wish your device could follow you around the house like a Star Wars droid, Asus has a product for you: the $599 Zenbo robot.

Announced at the Computex electronics show in Taiwan today, it closely resembles an iMac G4. But it’s way more than a computer: Zenbo’s white orb hides a set of wheels that propels it around the house, reading children’s stories and reminding whoever’s cooking breakfast how much flour to put in the waffles.

Attached to the top of the orb via a shiny metal arm is the robot’s face, an oval-shaped screen with a built-in display that can show information or, in true robot fashion, eyes and a mouth. It also includes a camera, which can detect faces, take photos and videos, and offer remote home monitoring via an app.   

Asus envisions the monitoring capabilities as especially useful for elderly owners; if someone looks like they’ve fallen or are otherwise in distress, Zenbo can notify an emergency contact.

Some of these capabilities are built-in. Zenbo comes with a library of children’s books, interactive games and an encyclopedia. Other features, such as the ability to control connected home devices, will require developer support.   

Other than mobility, the Zenbo’s AI capabilities are very similar to the Echo or the upcoming Google Home. It listens and responds to spoken requests, connects to social media accounts, and plays stereo-quality audio through its built-in speaker.

The Zenbo is also reminiscent of Softbank’s Pepper robots, mobile humanoid machines that can detect their owners’ emotions based on expressions and voice tones. But those cost $1,700 and still aren’t widely available almost two years after they were announced.

If Asus can deliver all the features it announced today for $599, it may be well on its way to realizing its chairman Jonney Shih’s vision to “enable robotic computing for every household.”