Amazon Astro is the rare tech product that makes a point of getting in your way.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been living with Amazon’s $1,450 autonomous robot, which can keep up with you while delivering reminders, playing music, or carrying small items on its back. Astro can also check things around the house and send live video to your phone, plus it can patrol for intruders when you’re away from home. (The bot is currently selling for a discounted price of $1,000 invite-only.)
But while Astro is a technological marvel, none of its primary use cases resonated with me, and its various attempts to make its presence known – beeping you when you pass by, for example, or camping in random places around the house – soon became squeaky. My wife wants him gone as soon as possible.
None of this means that home robots are a fundamentally bad idea. But if Amazon wants Astro to be the robot butler of the future, it will have to become less of a burden and more of an invisible hand.
To be situated
The first thing I did after receiving the Astro review unit was to set it up.
Locating Astro is an ordeal in itself, requiring facial and voice scans as well as a guided tour of the house for room-mapping purposes. The process can take around 50 minutes and Astro encourages you to clear the floor of obstructions – a never-ending challenge with young children at home – before you begin.
Once I started orienting the Astro, I quickly ran into a problem: our living room has a step-down, which Astro can’t navigate, and twice the robot drove too close, s froze in fear and canceled the entire mapping operation. . The only way to complete the installation was to erect a temporary barrier of couch cushions along the ledge, tricking Astro into thinking of it as a wall. He hasn’t ventured near the descent since.
Once set up, Astro responds to its name by looking in your direction with its 10-inch touchscreen, turning around to face you when necessary. You can ask him to go to a specific room, find a specific person, or just follow you. With the Astro app, you can also fly the robot manually while looking through its camera and set up “viewpoints” you might want to quickly check in the future, like the view out the front window.
That it all works is impressive, but it’s rarely as easy as talking to the nearest Echo or HomePod speaker. Astro isn’t great at hearing you if you’re in another room, and while you can always use another Alexa device to summon the bot remotely, there aren’t many uses to justify the wait. let it appear.
So, what is it for ?
My biggest issues with Astro had not to do with setup, but with figuring out what to do with the thing.
Sure, Astro can follow you around the house while playing music or follow you for any reminders you’ve set, but for those uses the robot is more cumbersome to manage than a dedicated smart speaker. First you need to make sure it is nearby and has enough range to follow you around the house. Astro also tends to get uncomfortably close when in follow mode, requiring more voice commands to back him up.
And maybe I’m too jaded of a tech journalist, but Astro’s parlor stuff got old fast. My house isn’t so big that I need a robot to move a can of beer; and Astro’s periscope camera, while handy for selfies, can’t match the quality of a decent smartphone. Asking your pet robot to dance is something you only need to see once, and his rendition of Happy Birthday – all melodic bloops and beeps – was both fun and unnerving. At night, the eerie glow of his touchscreen eyes and night vision light was even scarier.
The security bot
Ken Washington, Amazon’s vice president of software engineering for consumer robotics, says that, above all else, Astro is most useful as a security mechanism. It can monitor places where you don’t want a permanent camera, like a bedroom, as well as places where you hadn’t thought of installing a camera in the first place, like your oven.
Yet these use cases require some creativity from the user. I didn’t even consider the oven scenario until Washington pointed it out to me in an interview, and since Astro can only remember one floor plan at a time, sending it to your room can not even be possible. You can’t move Astro to another floor without having to go through the whole room mapping routine again. (I also argue that we’ve gotten along so far without sending cameras to every corner of our homes.)
Setting up Astro for security isn’t effortless either. Astro isn’t smart enough to automatically recognize when no one is home, which means you have to remember to put it in Away Mode when you leave (though you can do that remotely via the Astro app). , at least). And if you don’t remember to keep all of your doors open, Astro’s patrol capabilities will be limited. He can’t open doors and won’t even try to push open one.
As with everything Astro does, it all takes a lot of thought, planning, and foresight, which flies in the face of the idea that smart homes are meant to take the hassle out. While I’m sure some people will enjoy tinkering with Astro and pushing its limits, to me it’s become just another gadget to put up with with little clear gain in return, a very sophisticated example of technology for love’s sake technology.
It’s still early days for Astro, which Amazon calls a “Day 1 Editions” product. If you get an invitation to buy one, you’re essentially a beta tester helping Amazon figure out what to do with it. Some day 1 releases, such as the Echo Loop smart ring from a few years ago, never make it past that point.
Amazon’s Ken Washington won’t say if Astro will eventually lose its Day 1 publishing status, but he does say the company is committed to Astro and robots in general. He seems receptive to the idea that Astro might be too hands-on or even off-putting.
To that end, the company is still improving Astro’s navigation algorithms and wants to add more specific ways to interact with pets and children. Plans to make Astro work in small businesses are also on the table, as are ways for third-party developers to give the robot new skills. Even Astro’s status as a voiceless robot – technically, it forwards requests to Alexa if they require a spoken response – is up in the air.
“We have really ambitious plans for Astro,” Washington says. “It’s our first robot, it won’t be our last robot, and it will improve over time.”
In the meantime, I can’t wait to send it back.