AV Quick Takes: The Labrador Retriever Robot ‘Butler’ and Apple HomePod 2
Labrador Retriever Robot
Just over a year ago at CES 2022, the robotics and automation company Labrador Systems announced plans for an autonomous robot that could perform assisted-living functions for individuals with disabilities, chronic pain, injuries, or other health issues that affect their daily activities. At CES 2023, the final design was unveiled. (I have limited mobility and suffer from chronic back pain due to a spinal condition, so this is of particular interest to me, even if it’s slightly outside my normal AV purview). Dubbed the Labrador Retriever, the robot is designed to “serve as an extra pair of hands, to help move large loads, as well as keep smaller items within reach.” It’s basically a self-driving cart with adjustable height, able to lift and carry up to 25 pounds around the home using “3D vision” and an array of sensors to map and navigate the space. The robot can be pre-programmed to collect or deliver items such as food and medication at specific times, and can also be controlled using an app or voice commands to lift laundry, carry groceries, and more. Backed by Amazon, the Labrador system works with Amazon’s smart home devices, and the robot can be summoned via Alexa. At CES, the Labrador Retriever was demonstrated with an Amazon Echo Show 10 installed on top, allowing for easy Alexa-based interaction. The Robot retrieved beverages from a custom Labrador refrigerator and carried them to users.
The proof-of-concept demo with the Echo Show 10 is a preview of what we will be testing in our next rounds of pilots with care providers. Capabilities like this can make a dramatic difference in the quality of people’s lives and their ability to live independently while staying connected with others, and we're grateful to Amazon's team for their support on this project.
— Mike Dooley, Labrador Systems CEO
The Alexa Fund originally invested in Labrador due to our belief in the utility of robotics and the company’s vision to utilize this technology to benefit customers with mobility challenges or who lack access to home assistance. This test demonstration with Retriever and our Echo Show 10 not only makes technology physically within reach via voice but also showcases the power of ambient intelligence as the system can operate and navigate independently in the background.
— Paul Bernard, Alexa Fund director
Apple has announced the 2nd-generation of its full-sized HomePod smart speaker. The HomePod 2 ($299 each) looks awfully similar to the original 2018 HomePod, which was discontinued in March of 2021 after less-than-stellar sales. Priced at $50 less than the original, the new HomePod is cheap by high-end audio standards, and is less expensive than some offerings from Sonos and Bluesound. But it still costs 50% more than one of its biggest rivals in the mainstream smart-speaker space, the $200 Amazon Echo Studio. For non-audiophiles, spending $300 on a speaker (or $600 on a pair) might seem extravagant. Sticker-shock was probably the downfall of the original HomePod, which generally garnered favorable reviews for its sound quality, but didn’t lure customers away from much cheaper options from Amazon and Google. The HomePod 2, which begins shipping in early February 2023, has a few advantages over its predecessor, however. It supports the Matter standard of smart home devices, so it should play nicely with non-Apple smart tech. And it also boasts improved audio quality, thanks to a new driver array — a single 4-inch woofer paired with five tweeters, along with five microphones — and the powerful A7 chipset from the Apple Watch Series 7. According to Apple, the new hardware is better able to scan its acoustic environment and optimize the sound using beam-forming and other wizardry. This claimed improvement in audio comes despite the fact that the original HomePod had two more microphones and two more tweeters than the HomePod 2. Of course, a pair of HomePods will be required for true stereo imaging and more effective rendering of Spatial Audio, which is reportedly a strength of the HomePod 2. Unfortunately, you can’t pair a HomePod 2 with an original HomePod. When you aren’t home, the built-in microphones can be set to detect certain noises, such as a smoke alarm or the sound of breaking glass, and the speaker can send notifications to your iPhone or Apple Watch. Mark Henninger over at Sound and Vision had a chance to hear the new HomePod 2 and came away not only impressed, but moved by the experience.
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