aSUS+Zenbo

Asus just revealed a cool new line of smartphones, as well as new laptops that aim squarely at beating Apple’s MacBooks. But the most forwarding-thinking device that Asus introduced at Computex 2016 today is an actual robot.

Called Zenbo, Asus’ new toy looks like a cross between a vacuum cleaner and an old iMac G4. But perhaps toy is not the right word here. Asus is billing Zenbo as a robotic helper that can provide “assistance, entertainment, and companionship.” The target audience is mainly children and elderly, who could benefit from having a mobile assistant following along, helping with basic digital tasks or just keeping them company. Think a tablet on wheels, with voice controls, and a lot more brains.

Asus’ presentation video is a little ridiculous, and occasionally cringey, but if Asus can deliver even half of what it promised, it could have a hit product. That’s a big “if” though. The voice interactions seem far-fetched, especially if Asus is using its own technology rather than a more mature service like Google Assistant. In fact, Google’s new AI seems like a great fit for a robot assistant – Zenbo is basically just a Google Home on wheels. It remains to be seen whether Google – who is slowly dismantling its robotics initiative – will open up its assistant to hardware partners.

So, what can Zenbo do, on paper? It can recognize family members and seek them out in the home; speak reminders; tell stories and play music and video to kids; answer spoken queries for things like recipes or TV schedule; and generally interact with humans thanks to an evolving AI.

Zenbo’s most interesting feature could be the ability to connect to and control other smart home systems. That could make it the hub of future smart homes, provided Asus can get enough manufacturers to open up their systems and create integrations with Zenbo. That’s a lofty undertaking, without doubt.

Zenbo will cost just $599 when it goes on sale, at a date that will be announced in the future. That’s a bargain compared to the similar, but more advanced Pepper robot from Softbank, which will retail for $1800 this summer, and other humanoid robots coming out of Japan.

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