Apple considers home robotics for next big tech breakthrough

Tech giant explores new product line after cancelling effort to build electric car

Apple is under growing pressure to find new sources of revenue. Getty Images
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Apple has teams investigating a push into personal robotics, a field with the potential to become one of the company’s ever-shifting “next big things”, sources say.

Engineers at Apple have been exploring a mobile robot that can follow users around their homes, said the sources. The iPhone maker also has developed an advanced table-top home device that uses robotics to move a display around, they said.

Though the effort is still in the early stages – and it’s unclear if the products will ultimately be released – Apple is under growing pressure to find new sources of revenue. It scrapped an electric vehicle project in February, and a push into mixed-reality goggles is expected to take years to become a major money-maker.

With robotics, Apple could gain a bigger foothold in consumers’ homes and capitalise on advances in artificial intelligence. But it’s not yet clear what approach it might take.

Though the robotic smart display is much further along than the mobile bot, it has been added and removed from the company’s product road map over the years, according to the sources.

The robotics work is happening within Apple’s hardware engineering division and its AI and machine-learning group, which is run by John Giannandrea. Matt Costello and Brian Lynch – two executives focused on home products – have overseen the hardware development.

Still, Apple hasn’t committed to either project and the work is still considered to be in the early research phase. A spokeswoman declined to comment.

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Apple investors reacted coolly to the news, with the stock paring earlier gains after. It was up less than 1 per cent at $169.65 at the close in New York.

Shares of Roomba maker iRobot, meanwhile, briefly jumped as much as 17 per cent – a sign investors thought it might benefit from Apple’s interest in the field. But the rally faded, and the stock gained less than 2 per cent by the close.

Before the EV project was cancelled, Apple told its top executives that the company’s future revolved around three areas: automotive, the home and mixed reality. But now the car isn’t happening and Apple has already released its first mixed-reality product, the Vision Pro headset.

So the focus has shifted to other future opportunities, including how Apple can better compete in the smart home market.

The table-top robotics project first excited senior Apple executives a few years ago, including hardware engineering chief John Ternus and members of the industrial design team. The idea was to have the display mimic the head movements – such as nodding – of a person on FaceTime.

It would also have features to precisely lock on to a single person among a crowd during a video call.

But the company has been concerned about whether consumers would be willing to pay large amounts for such a device. There have also been technical challenges related to balancing the weight of a robotic motor on a small stand.

The primary obstacle has been disagreement among Apple executives over whether to move forward with the product at all, according to the sources.

Near its campus in Cupertino, California, Apple has a secret facility that resembles the inside of a house – a site where it can test future devices and initiatives for the home. Apple has been exploring other ideas for that market, including a new home hub device with an iPad-like display.

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Apple’s pursuit of the “next big thing” has been an obsession since the Steve Jobs era. But it’s become harder to envision a product that could ever match the iPhone, which accounted for 52 per cent of the company’s $383.3 billion in sales last year.

A car had the potential to add hundreds of billions of dollars to Apple’s revenue, in part because the vehicles were expected to sell for roughly $100,000 each.

Few other products have that kind of growth potential, but Apple has a number of projects in the works, including an updated Vision Pro, touch-screen Macs, AirPods with built-in cameras and new health technologies like a non-invasive blood sugar monitor.

Artificial intelligence is another major focus, even if Apple is playing catch-up in the realm of chatbots and other generative technology. That’s where there could be some overlap with the robotics work.

While still in the earliest stages, Apple AI researchers are investigating the use of algorithms to help bots navigate cluttered spaces within people’s homes.

If the work advances, Apple wouldn’t be the first tech giant to develop a home robot. Amazon introduced a model called Astro in 2021 that currently costs $1,600. But the company was slow to offer the device in major quantities, and it remains a niche product.

The company debuted a more business-focused version of the rolling bot last year designed to work as a security guard.

Perhaps the most popular home robot remains the Roomba vacuum, which debuted more than two decades ago. Amazon agreed to acquire iRobot in 2022, but regulatory opposition ultimately doomed the deal. Other companies have also presented the idea of humanoid robots that mimic the size and movements of people.

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A silver lining to Apple’s failed car endeavour is that it provided the underpinnings for other initiatives. The neural engine – the company’s AI chip inside of iPhones and Macs – was originally developed for the car.

The project also laid the groundwork for the Vision Pro because Apple investigated the use of virtual reality while driving.

The robot work got a similar start, originating within Apple’s Titan car project around 2019. That’s when the effort was run by Doug Field, now a top EV executive at Ford.

At the time, Mr Field tapped a series of executives to work on robotics initiatives, ranging from nearly silent indoor drones to home robots.

The group included Mr Lynch, Nick Sims, a former Google home products manager, and Dave Scott, who left Apple in 2021 to briefly run a mobile MRI machine company and then returned in 2022 to work on the Vision Pro. Hanns Wolfram Tappeiner, the co-founder of AI and robotics company Anki, is also involved.

Soon after Mr Field left Apple in 2021, the robotics work was shifted to the home devices group. And at least one former hardware team from the cancelled car project was recently repurposed to the work on home devices and robotics.

The car’s operating system – dubbed by some as safetyOS – could also theoretically be tailored for robots, according to sources.

The original concept for the robot was a device that could navigate entirely on its own without human intervention – like the car – and serve as a videoconferencing tool.

One pie-in-the-sky idea within Apple was having it be able to handle chores, like cleaning dishes in a sink. But that would require overcoming extraordinarily difficult engineering challenges – something that’s unlikely this decade.

On its website, Apple is advertising for robotics-related roles, indicating that it’s trying to expand the teams working on the project.

“Our team works at the intersection of modern machine learning and robotics to shape the AI that will power the next generation of Apple products,” according to the description of one job.

“We are looking for innovative and hardworking ML and robotics researchers and engineers that help us research, define, and develop complex intelligent robotic systems and experiences in the real world.”

Updated: April 04, 2024, 7:25 AM