Aldebaran is one of the brightest stars in the night sky, and because of it's position in the constellation Taurus, it's often referred to as the "Bull's Eye." Aldebaran is also the name of one of the most interesting, and potentially 'brightest' robotics start-up companies we know. They have drawn a large target on the humanoid robot market, and plan to hit it dead center in the bullseye with NAO, their innovative, fully autonomous robot next year.
Of course, we've been extremely curious about the NAO project ever since we first caught wind of it a few months ago. Although it's still too early to disclose a lot of the robot's specifics, Bruno Maisonnier, the founder of Aldebaran Robotics, was kind enough to frankly, openly, and very patiently, answer our long list of questions in the exclusive interview below.
Lem: It takes a lot of courage and conviction to start-up a new company in a totally unproven technology field like humanoid robotics. We understand that you were firmly convinced 20 years ago that robotics would eventually follow the same evolution as the microprocessor. And, that you prepared yourself by acquiring a broad range of business and management skills. Was there any specific trigger, example, or experience that convinced you so strongly?
Maisonnier: Actually, no special trigger, conjunction of hobbies (electronics, fiction novels, movies and a personal involvement in building/designing microprocessor based own PC and small flying planes) helped thinking about possibilities offered by integration of those technologies.
Of course PC's story, from the first useless but successful products sold up to day to day life's revolution helped turning what was just dreams and general ideas into a more organized strategy.
Two years ago, realizing that the key technologies needed where becoming available (mainly driven by the development of the mobility market), I launched the company. It is a bet on the right timing, but our strong conviction is confirmed by several examples, Sony released its fourth Aibo, the ERS-7, Wow Wee sold millions of Robosapiens, as well as iRobot with Roomba,
Bruno Maisonnier, beside the Al-04 prototype in the former ENSTA Laboratory
Lem: Most of the start-up robotics companies we're are seeing recently are managed by engineers, and tend to focus primarily on the technology aspects of the product. Your company seems to have more of a balanced approach and is paying a lot of attention to the business dimensions in addition to the technology. Why have you taken this approach, and do you think it will give you a significant advantage in the long term?
Maisonnier: It is for sure connected with my personal track record: after years in IT business, I've been managing banks for 10 years, in several countries, which fueled me with the evidence that being customer's driven is mandatory. Our market analysis, made in Europe, Japan and in the USA, convinced me that robotics companies have been mainly founded by engineers' teams that developed products for engineers, and tried to sell them. Of course some are brilliant teams and are encountering several customers interested in the product and this could provide enough incomes to go for a second improved product, and so on.
But it doesn't seem to me as the best way to go. Right after our second prototype (Al-02), proving to ourselves our ability to go further on, we first spent time and money to get market feedbacks: who will buy? What for? Which are the key points? Which feedbacks from existing products? Team, goals and timetable, have been completed based on the answers we got. Actually, it is not that easy because humanoids are already present in our collective mind, and customers' dreams are very challenging: There is still a large gap between customers' expectations and the reality we can deliver.
Our marketing research has shown that there is room for a companion robot. We are convinced that starting from the customer expectations and then develop a product that will match them is the proper way to develop the sales.
This means we are not aiming to create the best humanoid ever released but a product that will match our understanding of the market requirement. So, yes, I think that will grant us with a significant advantage.
Lem: Some of the press articles seem to emphasize the fact that this is the 'first French humanoid'. What's your perspective on this?
Maisonnier: Every article mentions the fact we are French, although we had not emphasize this in our press release. Why? Because when you think about robots, I'm not sure France is the first country that comes into your mind! For sure every product sold worldwide takes benefit from its origin country image. Designers are French young people, programming language is from a French start-up...Will that give it a French taste? For sure, but how, I am not able to detail it.
Ludovic Houchu, mecatronics intern, working on the Al-04 prototype in the new lab
Lem: Do your long term market/business plans include sales and distribution worldwide?
Maisonnier: Of course, yes! We are fully aware that our main market place is not France. As soon as they will be released we will sell our robots in Europe, the US and Japan. Our Robots will be customized for those markets (language, for example) and we will create and animate specific communities for those countries.
Lem: The opportunity to do cutting edge work with humanoids, and to help create a new business from the ground up, will have tremendous appeal to talented people worldwide. Assuming they have the proper qualifications, would you consider hiring people from other countries?
Maisonnier: More than considering it, we are willing it and will be pleased to do so. We already received some candidatures from all around the world, from Spain, India, UK, former MIT students, for example. The managers of Aldebaran Robotics have a strong international business experience and are convinced that mixing cultures and experience is one key factor of success to improve the final results. Now, we need to complete some milestones before doing it. An international team is a good thing but this is not that easy to manage.
Lem: Developing and introducing new technology is always a challenge. If you tried to explain a personal computer to people in the 1970's most of them might get the impression you were talking about a typewriter replacement. Some 'consumer robotics' companies are trying to focus on applications like home/apartment security. Do you think the consumer robot market will develop along rather mundane paths like that, or do you have a different vision?
Maisonnier: Let us admit that a consumer's mind is full of ladders with many rungs, each ladder representing a product family, and rungs, product, or brand itself. It is a lot easier to add a new rung in an existing ladder than trying to create a new one. But this theory is nearly impossible to apply to robotics: cars replaced horses, washing machine replaced hand washing, computers, typewriters... But what does a robot replace?
In fact, robots are already present in our mind since we are familiar with their presence in movies. It is surprising how young people feel immediately familiar with those new machines. The difficulty in selling the m comes from the limited functional capacity versus the very high price of the machines that have been released till now on the consumer market.
I think the consumer market will grow in two steps, a first limited step with techno fans that are buying robots because they are robots, then will come a booming mass market that will buy robots not anymore for what they are but for the "life style" around them.
To be clear, there is no use in trying to convince the masses that they need robots, just in substituting it to another product. Robotics market needs robotics fan to explain their friends, their family, why is it so cool to have a robot buddy, and it is a long way to go.
Lem: I realize that you can't disclose very much detail yet, but from the information that has been already made public, NAO seems very similar to other robots, like the MI-RAI-RT design. What can you share with us at this point?
Maisonnier: We are positioning NAO, not only as a tool, it is a life style product, a combination of a robot, a PDA, a buddy and an Art toy.
The MI-RAI-RT seems to be somewhere between the Manoi and our project. It looks like having a good mechanical platform, based on RC type servo-motors and their own limits, programmable motions and some wireless applications. We will provide NAO with specific designed actuators giving him very smooth movements, a much more powerful CPU and more sensors, like a digital camera. NAO is 22" tall (we find it the minimum size to evolve naturally on the ground), has gripping hands and his fully customizable.
NAO will be delivered with a specific user friendly interface that will be giving to the user the possibility to program behaviors for his robot either using a simple graphical tool or a development language like C++.
Lem: So, is NAO intended to operate autonomously or as a remote controlled device?
Maisonnier: NAO is designed to be autonomous: it can charge its battery by itself, upload new behaviors alone, and has an embedded decision system: So that you may let him "live its life". You choose when you want to control him, via a PC or a mobile phone, to teach him new behavior, to fight with other robots, or to ask him to run a specific task like watching around inside your house to see if all is ok. So, from the first day, it will be more than a remote controlled robot, and future path will be to improve the decision system.
Amy Wiggenhauser working on the psychological engine
Lem: You have several key partnerships, for example with CEAPOLE for the robot design. Could you give us a brief overview for our readers that may not be familiar with some of the French organizations?
Maisonnier: Creapole is a famous French design school. We have organized a competition with the fourth year students for the robot design. ENSTA is a kind of French MIT, and has lodged half of our laboratory for the first year (all the team has now been gathered in the same building). Jean-Christophe Baillie, the creator of Gostai and Urbi is also a teacher at the ENSTA.
Agoranov is the Aldebaran Robotics incubator: this means they provide us commodities to simplify the operations of the company. Bertin Technologies is one of the European leaders in innovative technologies. Part of them has been supporting us from the beginning, and not only on technologies parts.
From now, our new partners are more specialized in a specific expertise field: voice recognition, text-to-speech or gear design, for instance. Reason being that with our humanoid platform, we are now ready to integrate value through added technologies coming from partners, and of course, American partners are welcome!
Lem: Everyone is anxiously awaiting NAO's unveiling. What are your current release schedules and distribution plans ?
Maisonnier: We expect the first release of the robot to be available late 2007. We plan to address those customers mainly through internet and specialized distribution networks. Beside those distribution channels we plan to sale out of France, which implies that we are going to organize local communities of robot owners. We are actively looking for distribution partners out of France and have already a few promising contacts, but we are still open on this point.
Lem: The PC and internet revolutions were accelerated tremendously by the critical mass of colleges/universities, technologists, and startups that populated the Silicon Valley area. Do you think the same phenomena will occur with robotics in Europe or France?
Maisonnier: Actually, it is beginning to appear at the European and French levels. We are in a situation that we find similar to the "super cooling" scientific concept, we only miss one trigger to let crystals form and the network appear. I think that Aldebaran Robotics, with its capacity to deliver a physical platform will contribute to crystallize this network of universities, labs, SME or projects, which already undertook some steps in the fields of robotics.
Julien Serre, computer sciences manager, working on the motor test bench
Lem: Most technology executives welcome government money but resist any type of government control or 'strings attached. How do you see government playing a role in private industry?
Maisonnier: You are right, but it is not all about money. We are convinced that boosting the development of the robotics industry will require many entrepreneurs and labs; it will come through creation of company clusters developing each specific parts. Helping appearance of this king of clusters revealing convergences, and let them grow naturally without any king of government control is what we could expect from governments.
In a wider way, In one hand, I think it is neither the mission, nor the capacities of any government to imply itself too much in companies. In the other hand, future will be full of new technologies that companies and researchers will dream, imagine and develop. This requires time and investments, but also to gather skills and energies. There, each country has its way to support and boost such or such field of research, using VCs, directed programs, military orders or direct public support...
In France, historically, public supports took an important place instead of other means and just because they exist, potential investors expect you to fight for them; but due to their extreme diversity, thousands of possibilities, each one very limited, there is a low profitability of time spent, compared to what our Korean, Japanese and even Americans competitors can obtain!
Aldebaran Robotics Official Website (English)