The Future That Wasn’t: 1980s Home Robots

Androbot, Hubot, Genus and the RB5X were going to revolutionise the home – or so their creators thought

1983 was the year robots invaded the Consumer Electronics Show, soon after to storm homes across the world, and provide us with robotic domestic bliss ever since! Er… uh… well, maybe not.

Truth is, they never really took off. But it wasn’t for lack of trying! All sorts of people got into the robot market –including Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, presumably looking for something to do after selling Atari to Warner Communications. Bushnell’s Androbot made a series of robots, but they were more prototype than practical: F.R.E.D. (for Friendly Robotic Educational Device) only made simple movements, and acted as a pen for a turtle graphics program, while Fred’s larger, more expensive sibling Topo had speech synthesis, but still no real usefulness. But hey, these were just the start of what everybody (or at least Bushnell) was certain would become a billion-dollar marketplace. Who wouldn’t want a robot to help them around the house? Do the laundry? Clean up after dinner?

Frequently given away as a prize on video-game competition show Starcade, the RB5X had an RS-232 interface and a built-in Tiny BASIC interpreter. It had eight “bumper” sensors, and a photodiode for detecting the presence or absence of light, and a sonic transducer. These features made it markedly more useful than the Androbots – RB Robot Corporation, maker of the RB5X even announced a vacuum-cleaner attachment but it never made it into production. It would take until 2002 before the world would have vacuum-cleaning robots, and even then only for that.

The RB5X had an “optional” arm (we’re not sure what it would be good for without it, besides chasing the cat.) But a “fully-loaded” RB5X would cost you US$5000 1984 dollars! The Hubot was a little more sensible at US$3495 –that would get you a built-in television, radio, tape deck, Atari 2600 and 128K computer.

Hubot, meanwhile, was a “robot butler” designed for entertainment. Along with a TV, Radio, and Atari 2600, it also had a speech synthesiser with a 1200-word vocabulary, and could be voice-commanded with an optional module. Using its built-in computer, Hubot could be programmed to follow a path, or be driven with a joystick. Once programmed, it could be made to follow the path again with the push of a button.

It came with a simple sensor that stopped the robot if it ran into anything. Unfortunately, it appears consumers weren’t eager to party with Hubot, reports suggest only around 75 units were sold.

Attendees to 1983’s CES were wowed by Genus the robot – after all, it was going to do all sorts of things: vacuum, navigate your house using its ultra-sonic obstacle avoidance system, play games and act as a security guard. It could charge itself when its batteries were low, talk, and even shake hands –if you paid for arms! Like its competitors, its onboard computer could be programmed using BASIC, and had a built-in monitor for displaying information.

People who saw Genus felt certain the robot-era had arrived. Like most mid-1980s robots, Genus was expensive at US$3000 to $12000 with all the options, but people felt sure there would be enough “early adopters” to make at least some of the initial models profitable, and eventually bring prices down. 

Unfortunately, there weren’t enough well-to-do would-be robot enthusiasts satisfied with the limited capabilities of these devices to take the plunge into robot ownership, and the market collapsed before it even got started.

Like most of the stuff in the Jetsons, such as flying cars and floating houses, Rosie the Robot never made it to real-life prime time. It’s too bad, too – after all, who likes doing housework?

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