Thanks to advances in artificial intelligence and declining hardware costs, these consumer machines are finally starting to resemble the robots that have starred in sci-fi movies and TV shows for decades. The tech industry's annual massive convention, which took place last week, doubled as their coming-out party.
To be sure, a few robots have already made it big, especially in warehouses and factories. The most familiar to consumers might be the Roomba, which has been vacuuming people's homes since 2002. But artificially intelligent anthropomorphic robots, meaning those that have human-like features -- think Rosie from "The Jetsons" or C-3PO from "Star Wars" -- are just now starting to arrive, ushering in an exciting new era for this market.
"We're starting to have robots that have a little bit more of a personality. Not necessarily a human-like personality, but more of an individual personality," said Brad Feld, the managing director at venture capital firm Foundry Group. Feld, who is also the co-founder of startup accelerator Techstars, was at CES last week and has previously invested in robotics startups, including Sphero, whose ball-shaped robot is ubiquitous as the toy version of BB-8 from the new "Star Wars" films.*
As these new kinds of robots start to go on sale and reach consumers, the entrepreneurs making them are taking a variety of interesting approaches to design. Some offer themselves to consumers as personal sidekicks while others market their inventions as something more akin to that of a pet.
Take Kuri. This robot, which was announced last week by Mayfield Robotics, is about the size of a small penguin, and it kind of looks like one too. It has a black and white round body, and a little white ball for a head with two black eyes that blink.
By all measures, Kuri is a cute little bot, and that's no accident. Its creators drew on animated robots, like Disney's Wall-E, Eve and Baymax, for the design of Kuri. They wanted a robot for the home that could be useful to adults, appealing to kids and non-threatening to animals.
Kuri can play with children and read to them, and it can wake you up with an alarm or simply follow you around the house playing music. Mayfield says it plans to add more features via software updates over time, but because it is still early days for robots, Kuri is more creature than butler. It can help you the way a dog helps you. That is why rather than have Kuri speak, Mayfield chose to give its robot sounds similar to those of R2-D2 and BB-8.
"The fact that she speaks robot is to make sure that everyone's expectations of how smart she is is just right," said Sarah Osentoski, COO at Mayfield.
That pet-like approach is the same one taken by the team at Savioke. They are the makers of Relay, a robot launched in 2014 with a very specific purpose: deliver items to hotel guests. If you are at one of the dozens of hotels with Relay bots, you can summon one to bring you towels, a TV remote or food at an average response time of three to five minutes.
Relay is good at what it does, but robots are still new to many people and can be intimidating. That's why, as with Mayfield Robotics, Savioke chose to make Relay welcoming with a round design, a cute face on a screen and beeping sounds to communicate.
"If you're a guest at a hotel, you're in the elevator and Relay comes in, if it's a different kind of robot you could be frightened," said Lauren Schechtman, Savioke's vice president of marketing. "But Relay is very sweet and pet-like."
These pet-like products are expected to emerge as the next wave of widely adopted robots, but already, there are several innovators working on more assistant-like robots, or "humanoids" as some in the industry call them.
One example is Lynx, which was announced at CES by UBTech. Short with two arms, two legs and a head, Lynx looks like a robotic toddler. But Lynx's purpose is quite broad.
This robot is intended to help you in the way Siri might help you on your phone. UBTech gave Lynx the ability to speak and equipped the robot with Alexa, Amazon's virtual assistant. You can give Lynx the same kind of commands you would give the Amazon Echo, such as telling it to set reminders, play music or buy goods. You can also give it robot-specific instructions, such as telling it send you a video feed of your home so you can check on your pets or to strike yoga poses and take you through a lesson.
"From a value standpoint, you get a walking, talking computer," said John Rhee, UBTech's general manager of North America.
More ambitiously, there is the Leenby by Cybedroid. This robot is the size of a short human. It rolls around on wheels, but from the torso and up, it was designed to mimic that of the human body. It has two arms that have a wide range of motion, a speaker from which it can talk and a head that looks like a motorcycle helmet.
Cybedroid makes it clear that this is only their prototype -- a final product is at least one year away -- but the company's hope is to build a robot that can assist the elderly at retirement communities. The goal is for Leenby to be able to do tasks as simple as bring someone a glass of water and others as complex as helping guide a person with Alzheimer's disease back to their room.
"It's a man-made world," said Sylvain Braem, COO of Cybedroid. "Everything has been tailored for us -- our hands, our legs, everything. If we want something to step into our world, it needs to have our features."
Correction: Owing to an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly said Sphero was the inspiration for BB-8. In fact, Disney executives started working with the company only after realizing its product was similar to the film character under development.