The first born-at-Catalyst company that will be nudged over the side of the nest on the assumption that it will fly is Androbot Inc., scheduled for eviction this spring. Although barely out of swaddling clothes, Androbot's 1984 business plan aspires to sales of no less than $25 million. Founded with a handful of engineers let loose in a Catalyst Technologies lab, Androbot now has 30 employees -- and one product, a homely three-foot-tall home robot called Topo that was introduced in the plastic flesh at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this past January.
It is a lovable product that Nolan Bushnell believes will be irresistible to U.S. householders. Bushnell may be wrong about an untestable market. But with a record of good guessing that includes the development and marketing of Pong, the computer game that presaged today's multibillion-dollar video madness, a person would need long odds to bet against Topo and its younger but more sophisticated brother, Bob, whose three internal computers are under development at Androbot.
At least three other manufacturers agree: They are each rushing a competing product to market. In December, Heath Co., a Zenith Radio Corp. subsidiary, introduced its 20-inch ($1,500 in kit form; $2,500 assembled), R2D2esque Hero 1 on national TV and is expecting sales of 8,000 to 10,000 units the first year. Mail-order specialist Hammacher Schlemmer was writing dozens of orders for $8,000 Jenus, a nearly human-size, smiling (via a CRT), articulated domestic (with a vacuum cleaner mode) under development by Robotics International Corp. of Jackson, Mich. Mitsubishi in Japan is said to be close to market as well. Although so far essentially a plaything, even the basic product doesn't come cheap or fast: Androbot is well into its second year and second million dollars' worth of development, and Heath admits to having spent more than $1 million in three years for its own project. And as of January, Hammacher's customers had yet to see the real thing.
Each robot is remarkably different in looks and engineering solutions. Ingeniously, armless Topo gets about on two angled wheels, for example, while one-armed Hero 1 has the conventional three wheels, and Jenus two drive wheels and two casters. But all share one characteristic: They don't really think for themselves. Humans have to tell them what to do or "coach" them through simple programs. Topo is radio-controlled; equipped with electronic sensors, Hero 1 can be programmed to repeat predetermined functions, including picking up a newspaper.
Slated for production this spring to sell for about $2,500, Androbot's Bob (for "brain on board") will make many of its own decisions. Bob will be guided by ultrasonic and infrared systems that create the basis for artificial intelligence, however rudimentary, operating independent of radio control or an umbilicus. Given a roomful of people whom "friendly" Bob seeks out through delicate heat sensors that can distinguish between a human and a light bulb -- the robot may act unpredictably, claims Androbot president Thomas Frisina. "He might sing, dance, or tell jokes." Bob will also be able to make his way from room to room checking for fire or robbers while autonomously changing course according to an electronic "reading" of the environment. To entertain kids, the machine will play hide-and-seek for hours.
Like the robots it creates, Androbot will feel its way cautiously in the marketplace, as consumer reaction dictates the next steps. In 1983 there won't be advertising, and the robots will be marketed selectively. In 1984, though, plans call for all-out promotion. "By then we'll know how to build the product, and we'll be able to define market needs," explains Frisina, an erstwhile stereo-components marketer and told friend of Catalyst president Lawrence Calof, who brought him in last fall to run the company. For an inexperienced chief executive officer, it is a sobering responsibility, especially as it is Bushnell's capital that will remain very much at risk. But the challenge delights Frisina. "It gives me the chance to be an entrepreneur," he beams, "and relieves me of the liabilities."