There is more to the latest social robotics acquisition than market adversity.
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Misty Robotics Acquired by Furhat Robotics
The social robot market has for the past few years been the domain of failure, consolidation, and struggle. In February, US social robotics start-up Misty Robotics was acquired by fellow social robot player Sweden’s Furhat Robotics. However, unlike previous exits, Misty is set to continue as a brand, with its social robot offering continuing availability and set for further development. The deal is perhaps less about the long investment heavy road to social robot adoption as it is more about the need to pool talent and resources.
Two Very Different Approaches to Social Robotics
Although Furhat and Misty committed to the potential demand for social robots, the two companies have taken very different approaches. Sweden based Furhat’s social robot offers a static head-shaped device with a back projected face. The projected face can be adapted to suit its deployment space and provide facial changes and responses during engagement with end users. The non-verbal communication aspects of this are particularly valuable for addressing users. The device has already been deployed in trials by Deutsche Bahn at Berlin Station as an interactive information kiosk.
By contrast, the Misty II is a more typical, albeit small, robot style type device with ambulatory capabilities and the ability to move around. The Misty II robot was developed to provide professional-grade personal robots that could be used for performing ad-hoc physical tasks and interacting with humans. Key to its design was to deliver it as a customizable platform so third-party developers and researchers, as well as high-end consumers, could build and test prototype social robot applications. The device supports the ability to capture and share images and data from its surroundings as well as show emotion and respond to human interactions, including touch.
Pooling Resources and Developers Tools Commonality
It has become regular over the past few years for social robot start-ups to struggle and fall by the wayside. Anki, Jibo, Seven Dreamers, and Kuri all failed to find markets to support their social robot approaches. Jibo, the highest profile of those, did seem to be resurrected in 2020 when NTT invested in buying what was left. However, since the deal was announced with a new website and a promise to focus on two key markets: healthcare and education—little has been heard since.
There is clearly a role for Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robots in delivering services in a way that is both useful and engaging. With a stark labor shortage in many skilled professions, especially in elderly care, the potential for social robots that can replace or augment human physical tasks or social interactions is evident. There is a role for social robotics in the consumer market and one, that while long predicted, is getting increasingly closer. The industry requires start-ups to push and develop these applications, but the attrition rate suggests it remains a precarious venture.
However, ABI Research believes the Furhat acquisition of Misty can be seen more positively. Both companies have found market segments that are investing in their offerings. Furhat has had some impressive pilots within train stations and airport operators around the world for its passenger information application. So much so, that Deutsche Banh and Furhat have established a joint venture—SEMMI—to market the device to the public transportation sector. For its part, Misty had pushed into many key robot development labs, including those at Microsoft technology centers around the world outpacing shipments of Furhat’s more bespoke and expensive product.
Despite being committed to the same market, it is the lack of overlap between these two companies that suggests there are signs that this deal is more positive for the social robotics space than may be assumed at first glance. Following the deal, the two companies will have offices and support in both Europe and the US, with Furhat maintaining Misty’s Colorado operations and support for both products present in both locations. In addition, the combined company start to standardize Software Development Kits (SDKs) for the two company’s offerings, bringing developers the ability to quickly move between application development for the two approaches. Finally, given the very different approaches between the company to product development, production, and pricing, there are significant manufacturing and product price point differences between Furhat and Misty. For its part, Furhat believes that the contract manufacturing network established by Misty for its lower-priced robot will be able to be leveraged by Furhat to bring efficiencies to its core product.
The Furhat acquisition of Misty is a reflection of the developing social robot market. It is not necessarily sign of an inability for this market to sustain a company to survive long-enough for adoption to take off. Instead, the deal has so little overlap between the companies it should be viewed as a step that will help expand the efficiency and potential longevity of two very different approaches.