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samsung CEO with Ballie

Samsung rolls out spherical companion bot at CES 2020

Image credit: REUTERS/Steve Marcus

The South Korean electronics giant has used its CES 2020 keynote to unveil a range of eyecatching consumer devices, including a ball-shaped domestic robot.

Samsung opened its CES 2020 keynote by presenting Ballie, a domestic robot which has a unique form factor; it is the shape and size of a tennis ball. Ballie is a multi-purpose robot equipped with a camera and virtual assistant and is shown in a promotional video following a woman around her home, keeping its lens focused on her as she goes about everyday tasks.

Ballie's design has been compared to BB-8, the spherical droid character seen in the Star Wars sequel films (itself immortalised in interactive real-world toy form by Sphero, until that company opted not to renew its partnership with Disney in December 2018).

“Ballie patrols your home to keep you safe,” said Sebastian Seung, chief research scientist for Samsung. “He is a fitness assistant that gets you moving even when you’d rather lie on the couch and watch TV.”

In the video, the robot is shown streaming live home video to the woman while she is at work and activating a vacuum to clean up after cereal spills on the floor. The robot appeared on stage at CES 2020, approaching Samsung Electronics CEO Hyunsuk Kim upon his command: “Come here, Ballie”.

“I love this guy,” Kim added, as he played with the robot on stage.

No release date or price has yet been confirmed for Ballie.

Ben Wood, an analyst for CCS Insight, told CNBC: “It is hard to believe a rival such as Amazon does not have future plans to evolve its Echo product line – for example, a domestic robot that could potentially be called an EchoBot. However, such devices will be lightning conductors for privacy concerns and I expect Samsung’s demo to result in deeply polarised views with those who like the concept and those who loathe it.”

Samsung said that the robot would adhere to privacy and data protection rules.

The company probably intends for Ballie to become the likeable face of its own smart home ecosystem. The core of the ecosystem will be the Galaxy Home Mini smart speaker, which is scheduled for launch in Q1 or Q2 this year. The smart speaker is powered by Samsung’s own virtual assistant, Bixby. Kim explained that rather than compete with Amazon and Google in producing a fluent, conversational virtual assistant, the company was focusing on creating an assistant capable of executing voice commands accurately and controlling a wide range of gadgets.

Samsung also previewed a pair of augmented reality (AR) glasses. In a demonstration, a person with mobility limitations uses the glasses – displaying a virtual personal trainer – along with a Samsung exoskeleton (“Gait Enhancing and Motivating System”) to perform exercises. Kim explained that the company is working to minimise dizziness in order to make the glasses as small and streamlined as possible.

It is not entirely clear at this point whether the glasses will be targeted at consumers or businesses - or both. While Google Glass infamously failed to catch on with consumers and was discontinued in 2017, its ‘Enterprise’ edition lives on and has proved moderately successful. Similarly, Microsoft’s mixed-reality HoloLens has been well-received amongst enterprise clients, whilst failing to gain significant traction for consumer use.

Samsung did not disclose how much the AR glasses will cost or when they might go on sale.

After its keynote, the company also revealed some details of its 'Neon' project to create AI-powered avatars which strongly resemble humans. The project is being led by Samsung subsidiary Star Labs, which intends to create “artificial humans” with whom humans can effortlessly interact via screens and possibly also via hologram-like displays. These Neons appear to be intended as human-like chatbots for use by banks, schools, healthcare providers and in hospitality.

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