Robots Get Their Own App Store

Starting soon, people will be able to download apps for their personal robots just like they download apps for their iPhone or iPad.

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Ed Alcock / Aldebaran Robotics

It’ll be some time before households have a domestic robot that can handle the chores, but we’re living at a time when robots are more accessible to the average person than any other point in human history. Take the Robot App Store, for instance, slated to launch in a couple weeks.

The idea is that you’ll be able to download apps written by approved developers, just like you do for your iPhone or iPad, and those apps will introduce new functions to your robot. For example, you might download an app to make your robot scoop out food for your dog, or another that makes it kick a soccer ball.

(MORE: 7 Real, Functional Robots You Can Buy Right Now)

The idea’s not new: Romo, a robot that utilizes its owner’s smartphone as “brains” to move its body around, depends on new apps to let it do things like dance and provide real-time video to the person controlling it.

The issue isn’t whether apps are a viable way to connect developers and robot owners, it’s that many robots remain out of the price range of the average consumer. One of the most popular humanoid robots, the NAO Next Gen, costs $16,000, and the open-source DARwIn-OP retails for $12,000.

Still, many robots (like iRobot’s Roomba) are priced in the more affordable $350-$600 range, and Elad Inbar, CEO and founder of the Robot App Store, points out that sales of personal robots are rising. According to the International Federation of Robotics, around 9.8 million domestic robots (machines that mow lawns, vacuum floors, etc.) and 4.6 million entertainment and leisure robots are expected to be sold between 2011 and 2014.

Inbar plans to be ready for all of those new robot owners. He claims that the Robot App Store, created just 10 months ago, will be stocked at launch with around 500 apps written by 200 approved developers.

“Right now the apps are on the edge between utility and fun, doing things like [sending your robot] to another room to grab you a specific item,” says Inbar. But just because the initial apps will be simple doesn’t mean they won’t be popular, he adds.

“Think about the flashlight app. In the early days of the App Store, a developer put it online and is now making lots of money each month. It seems stupid because it’s so simple, but it’s useful and lots of people downloaded it.”

The current apps range from silly — a developer created a program that would let a robot identify beer by color, picking his favorite from a product lineup — to more practical applications like improving a robot’s navigation function. In fact, software updates might be one of the Robot App Store’s most important roles in the future of robotics. Instead of buying a new expensive robot every few years, people could just download less expensive upgrades to their software.

Of course, that means bringing the robotics companies onboard — no easy task when you’re talking about consumers buying $10-$100 upgrades instead of a new $600 robot.

Still, the rise of tools like Microsoft’s Kinect and the increasing number of manufacturer-provided software development kits means that more and more robot owners out there are likely to become developers. Offer them a way to make a little money (minus the Robot App Store’s 30% cut) and you’ve got yourself a decent business model.

Inbar’s operation probably isn’t going to rival Apple’s App Store in popularity anytime soon. But he is right that the market for personal robots is growing and somebody’s going to be there, serving it.

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