A robot as a child's companion? Emotix's Miko takes baby steps
Paired with a phone, this versatile bot can hold conversations with children, do fun things like tell stories or sing songs and answer general knowledge questions.
Founder name(s) - Sneh Vaswani, Prashant Iyengar & Chintan Raikar
City it is based out of - Mumbai
Headcount/Strength of the team - 35+
Industry - Robotics
Investors/Amount raised - Undisclosed
Robotics may be shaping the future of retail with global giants Walmart and Amazon packing the best of automation and AI in their warehouses, but this disruption seems to be missing in the domestic space.
While some inroads have been made in programming bots that can perform certain tasks around the house, those that can communicate seamlessly with people have largely been relegated to the domain of science fiction.
This is beginning to change.
"Innovation is driving entrepreneurs to see the potential in social robots, which are not just artificially intelligent, but emotionally sharp as well, " says Sneh Vaswani, CEO and co-founder of India's first companion robot Miko.
Just over a year old, Miko is an emotionally intelligent robot capable of engaging, educating and entertaining. Designed for children above the ages of five, this pint-sized package has access to a wide pool of knowledge which it conveys to a child in a conversational manner.
Co-founders of Emotix - (From L to R) Prashant Iyengar, Sneh Vaswani and Chintan Raikar
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Not kidding around
While the world's richest and possibly the smartest two people today may disagree on the utility of AI, three graduates from IIT-Bombay seem to have found a compelling argument around Gate's reasoning over Musk's. But the trio are careful to clarify that Miko is not a replacement for human interaction.
"We are not discounting the role a parent, friend or anyone else will have in the child's life," says Vaswani. "Developed with the inputs of senior childcare doctors and academicians, it at best offers a strong value addition to everyday interactions," he adds.
For the co-founders, Miko is basically a better substitute for the technological mediums a child has at his or her disposal today.
"Kids today are acquainted with technology at a young age, and thus spend a large portion of their time in front of screens," says Vaswani. "But purging technology from their lives is not the right approach - rather, a medium with a completely child-safe interface should be embraced. Our AI-powered companion robot could be one of them," he adds.
Co-founded by Vaswani along with two of his batchmates from college - Prashant Iyengar and Chintan Raikar - consumer electronics startup Emotix's pioneer product had been in development for nearly three years before it hit the Indian market in February this year.
"We conducted 22 pilots and went back multiple times to the drawing board in pursuit of the perfect product," says Vaswani. "Before arriving at the final design, we did extensive research to identify the unmet needs of parents and children, which reflects in all the features that you see today," he adds.
Paired with a smartphone through the My Miko app, this versatile bot can hold conversations with children or do fun things like tell stories or sing songs. In turn, kids can ask general knowledge questions by simply prefixing their request with "Hey Miko".
"An important feature is that it learns more and more about the child's likes, dislikes and preferences as they converse on various topics," says Vaswani. "Miko has been programmed with an adaptive personality, which means that it leverages its knowledge around the child to guide interactions with him/her. The more they talk, the sooner it will be able to adapt and cater to specific needs," he adds.
All of 800 gm, Miko can run up to three hours on a single charge (that takes a little over an hour). This could, however, vary depending on the level of activity it is engaged in, that is, talking, moving or both.
"Miko is designed to move on flat surfaces against the support of its three wheels," says Vaswani. "If it bumps into objects or is placed on an uneven surface, it can correct its course or warn the user that it needs to be on a flat surface," he adds.
A tiny display on its body shows several expressions as it talks to children. It also has LEDs on its sides which glow in different colours depending on what it is doing.
Interestingly, Miko does not need internet for many of its features - including playing games or holding basic conversations. However, answering questions is powered through the web and hence, it will need to go online. Additionally, parents can access a dashboard through the connected app to control the relationship it shares with the child.
"Parents can recommend and select the subject matter that Miko should additionally stress about when interacting with their child," says Vaswani.
Big strides for a short journey
Slated for an international launch next year, this Mumbai-based startup collaborated with a team of over 20 engineers, mathematicians, artists and neuropsychologists from across India, Russia and Korea to create its first product.
"Our USP has been our focus on parents and children," says Vaswani. "Emotix has accurately identified a strong consumer need and is a great teaching tool as well. Although there have been quite a few social robots in the international market, they are not companions in the true sense of the word and are merely programmed to carry out specified functions," he adds.
But would parents in India spend a whopping Rs 19,000 for one?
"The product may be a little pricey, but the response we got has been phenomenal," says Vaswani. "While we anticipated demand from an urban Indian market, there has been a lot of interest from tier 2 cities as well," he says.
The IIT-Bombay alumnus claims that the company has surpassed its sales estimates every quarter since its early 2017 launch. In fact, even schools across the country have purchased Miko to be of assistance to teachers in classrooms.
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"Following direct to consumer transactions through the website, we got an encouraging start at retail stores as well," he says. "Now available on Flipkart, Croma and Hamleys, we are aggressively looking at increasing our offline and digital footprint going forward," he adds.
Having raised an undisclosed amount through a string of investors including corporate thought leaders, senior academicians, and serial entrepreneurs, Emotix seems to be on its way to making a splash in international markets next year. Currently functional only in English, the startup wants to widen its voice recognition feature to support more Indian languages in the future.
The founding trio had a rich experience in robotics and AI before diving headlong into this space in 2014. Following a brief stint in the corporate world, they were inspired to solve "solid consumer problems with [our] experience."
Emotix was ranked second among 135 participants at IBM Smart Camp for Deep Tech startups last year. It was also recognized at India's Best Design Award and showcased at NASSCOM Product Conclave this year.
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