Amazon just announced its new Amazon Astro household robot, for sale at an introductory price of $999.99. But it's not for sale to just anyone -- purchase of the Astro is by invitation only for now. Fortunately, requesting an invitation is an easy and straightforward process. You can fill out a questionnaire on the Amazon website. Invitations will be sent out on a rolling basis, the company says. According to The Verge, the first Astro customers will likely get their robots later this year.
Should you want an Amazon Astro household robot? Here are some reasons why you might -- or might not:
1. It might be handy for video meetings.
We've all gotten accustomed to Zoom meetings during the past year, and also to Zoom fatigue. I don't know about you, but a big part of the fatigue factor has to do with feeling pinned to my office chair. Today's alternatives are either to temporarily leave the meeting or turn your camera off, which should be fine but can feel rude; join the meeting by smartphone, which can be awkward and may not give your colleagues the best view of you; or awkwardly carry your laptop around.
The Astro may offer an intriguing fourth option: to have your video camera and screen follow you around your home. It may or may not be a good solution in all situations -- too many rolling cameras could make viewers dizzy, for one thing -- but it could free you up to move away from your desk during meetings. Amazon has not indicated whether the Astro will support Zoom, but Zoom already works with a different Amazon product -- the second-generation Fire TV Cube -- so there's a chance that it could.
2. You can use it to check on things at home while you're at work or traveling.
This seems to be the main use case for the Astro. It can watch over your home while you're out (or asleep) to alert you to intruders, and keep tabs on pets or elderly or ill relatives. Because the camera and screen are mounted on a mast that can extend upward to 42 inches from the floor, you can also use it to look at, say, the oven knob to make sure it's turned off. It also comes with a six-month trial of Ring Protect Pro.
3. It can follow you around.
This could be handy if, for instance, you want to listen to music or watch videos and be able to move around the house while doing so. It also has two cup holders which means it can hold your drinks or snacks -- Ziploc is making a special container to fit in the Astro -- while you roam around. It also means someone else in your household can use the Astro to deliver a drink or snack to you.
4. It's cute!
Whatever you may think of its functionality (more on that below), the Astro is a great looking device. Its streamlined black and white design makes it office-appropriate but the animated circle-eyes on its screen can be very expressive. (They also turn blue when it hears its name, the same way Alexa does.)
1. It's pricey.
A thousand bucks may be a lot for a device that some have described as "an Echo 10 Show on wheels." By contrast, the Echo 10 Show is currently available from Amazon for $249.99. It has a similar size screen that will swivel to follow you around a room, although the device is stationary and doesn't have the cute eyes or periscope. And $999.99 is just the introductory price for the Astro. Once it's fully launched, it will cost $1,449.99.
On the other hand, over time, Amazon is likely to give it more functionality and third-party vendors will likely provide new apps and hardware for the Astro. Amazon says a subscription service called Alexa Together will soon allow Astro to help provide elder care, with things like monitoring and medication reminders. Furbo, the pet-treat-tossing camera, and the Omrom blood pressure monitor have already made Astro-compatible models.
2. It may raise privacy concerns.
Gizmodo's Andrew Couts declared himself horrified by the amount of data Amazon would have access to in a household with an Astro in it. We already know that Alexa and other virtual assistants listen to us all the time in order to hear their wake words, and that Amazon and others collect huge amounts of data about their customers. That said, you can use Astro's room mapping software to tell it that some parts of your home (your bathroom, for instance) are off-limits. You can also turn off the device's camera, microphones, and motion by pushing a single button. And, realistically, anyone seriously considering an Astro probably already has a few Echo devices, so any loss of privacy may only be a matter of degree.
3. It may not quite be ready for prime time.
Amazon warns that the Astro can't climb stairs (duh). But the questionnaire you have to fill out to get one will tell you that it's unable to cope with a variety of relatively common household situations. These include stairways down that have a corner or curve at the top step, floors with 1.375 inches of height difference, glossy black floors, and ramps. Amazon, perhaps anticipating accessibility complaints, goes out of its way to say that the Astro may be compatible with ramps in the future.
Glass doors or windows that reach the floor and don't have a thick enough frame, glass coffee tables, or a space greater than 3,500 square feet could also require special attention during setup, according to the questionnaire. Before you can get an invite, you'll have to tell Amazon whether you have any of these things in your home, as well as your top reason for wanting an Astro in the first place.
And some developers who worked on the project anonymously told Vice that there were issues with the robot failing to recognize people well, with its mast getting stuck in the extended position, and with it falling down stairs. An Amazon spokesperson replied that these reports were "simply inaccurate," and that the device had been rigorously tested in a wide array of situations.
Is it worth it? That's a tough call. But filling out the questionnaire is fast and free, and the price of the Astro is going to go up more than 69 percent once this introductory period is over. So if you even think you might possibly want one, you might as well take that first step.