Astro Sarah

Amazon Astro Robot Reviewed: Interview With Sarah Andrew Wilson

Amazon introduced the Astro robot during its annual device showcase last fall. The company pitched the friendly-faced robot as a wheeled mobile assistant to handle entertainment, security, and even courier roles. Sarah Andrew Wilson, who served as the chief content officer for voice game developer before its February acquisition by Volley, was one of the few chosen by Amazon to buy Astro early. Amazon will then use feedback from Wilson and other early Astro owners to upgrade and improve Astro for a more general release in the near future. Voicebot interviewed Wilson about what it’s like owning Astro, the benefits and drawbacks of the robot, and how she views it within the rapidly evolving smart home ecosystem. Interview questions and responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

Astro Performance and Use

What led to you deciding to buy Astro?

“I definitely was not looking for a house robot [before the Astro announcement]. I didn’t know that I was interested in this whatsoever. I see so much potential in voice and with the stationary devices. I wasn’t even thinking about those that move too much. But then, at the Amazon announcements last year, they announced the thermostat, they announced the little drone, and they announced Astro. The second I saw Astro, there was something about it that made me instantly curious; I was like, what can you do? What can you do with this? It’s an Alexa device that moves about and has facial expressions. So it just seemed the use cases they had in that announcement video, too, were really intriguing to me.”

What’s it like interacting with Astro compared to other Alexa devices?

“It doesn’t look like any Amazon Echo device that we previously have seen, and it feels totally different for most of your interactions. But when you ask it to do something where Alexa needs to take over, suddenly you’re interacting with Alexa, and you think, ‘oh, yeah. This is actually an Alexa device that is combined with robotics, and a totally different team at Amazon got involved with this.’”

Amazon made a big deal about the spatial awareness embedded in Astro and highlighted how it could learn its way around the house by making its own map. Did it meet the success of the promotional material?

“It took like within an hour to understand the house. That part is really impressive. It has surprised me with the high level of spatial awareness. but also understanding the house. When you first set it up, you set up all the normal settings, and you do the facial recognition setup and voice recognition setup. And then the next thing it says is like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna map your house. ‘I’m going to go roam around.’ o you just let it roam around. And the initial roaming around takes maybe 20 minutes or so. It initially is going around the house, noticing where stairs are, noticing where furniture is, then it goes and explores in a different route than the original time. And it’ll search each room more in-depth. All of that combined takes about an hour.”

Did it need any guidance, or was it entirely automatic in mapping your home?

“So it goes around, it maps everything. And because we have an open floor plan, it thinks it’s all the same room. Then it tells you on the screen [of the connected app] what to do when you’re setting it up. You go to each room and say, ‘Astro, follow me.’ And when you get to a room, you say, ‘Astro, this is the kitchen.’ And then on the screen, it says this is the kitchen or ‘do you want to name this room the kitchen?’ I say yes, and it’s marked.”

“I’ve just been so impressed with Astro recently. We’ve had a family reunion over the past several days. So some furniture has been moved, and people may leave something on the floor. And Astro, when it comes across something, it stops as if it’s thinking, and then it finds another way around it. It’s just really impressive. It has not run into anything except for my little airflow directors on my vents. Everything else, if you throw a wrench into its path, it’ll figure out a way around it.”

How well can Astro find you now when you want it to?

“I set a timer the other day on Astro because it was the closest device near me. I was in the living room, and I set the timer, and then I went into my office and totally forgot about it. And then I heard the timer go off, but Astro was across the house. I could have yelled really loudly, ‘Astro stop!’ But I wanted to see what would happen. And what happened was Astro started coming to look for me to show me that the timer was up, and I was pleasantly surprised about that. It was unexpected. That it knows through the voice recognition that it was me that set the timer and maybe because it was looking at me through facial recognition. And then it went through the house, and it said ‘looking for Sarah.” And then it found me, and I was able to say, ‘Astro stop.’”

How is Astro as a portable smart display and general Alexa device?

“It does this weird handoff. So when you’re talking to Astro, and you want it to follow you, or you want it to go to a certain room, it doesn’t talk to you. It shows something on the screen like it’ll confirm, ‘Okay, going to dining room.’ And I’ll do like these beeps and boops like a little R2D2. It’s so cute. But then, if there’s something that is outside of Astro’s realm, then it switches to that typical Alexa voice, and then you’ve got it. It’s weird because I feel like suddenly I am not talking to Astro. Astro doesn’t exist. Suddenly I’m just talking to an Alexa device, and I have to switch that in my brain. I don’t think I want Astro to have a voice because it has this persona of this puppy. I like the beeps and boops. But then I don’t know how you bridge the gap between Astro and Alexa because it’s jarring when suddenly, oh, I’m talking to this adult woman instead of this puppy. I don’t know how they’re gonna bridge that.”

Has Astro changed your usage of your Echos or other Alexa devices?

“So I feel like I still use our Alexa devices. If Astro is not around, I’m still using those Alexa devices. But I probably do use them a little less because Astro just is kind of around. And honestly, the novelty still hasn’t worn off. So I’m always asking where’s Astro I’ll ask Astro if it can do this for me. I would guess right now the usage of the normal Alexa devices is probably lower right now because of Astro, but I’m still using them.”

Astro Limits and Gaps

What kind of limitations or complications with Astro stand out when you’re interacting with it?

“To really communicate with Astro and get the full effect of it, I find myself crouching down or bending over to talk to it. Like you might talk to a puppy, you’re kind of turning and crouching over. But I feel like there need to be some more flexible movements on Astro’s part. Maybe the screen can come up higher or something to really make it a helpful assistant around the house. If you’re standing there and you have back problems, you can’t bend over and look at the screen. There are other things too. If I have a hard time reaching something in the kitchen, it would be really great if this little robot could come over and help me reach something.

Astro currently offers a handful of attachments. It can support a cupholder, a Ziplock storage container, an Omron blood pressure monitor, or a Furbo pet monitor that can throw treats to pets. How does that affect use cases in your case?

“So the use cases, for our particular household, I’m realizing are limited, to be honest, in terms of Astro in terms of using the Alexa capabilities on Astro. I’m still using it as regularly as I do the regular Alexa devices, but we don’t have an elderly parent who’s living alone somewhere that I would want to get an Astro for. That’s kind of the really helpful use case that I could see people using Astro or any kind of robot. But just for our household, where there are just two adults and no pets or kids, the use cases are starting to become limited. I would want a lot more attachments on this to make it truly helpful for families or for people living alone. Because you have to ask why is there not a vacuum attached to it?

I feel like we got Astro because we’re like, into this technology, we’re really, really curious about where this is all going and discovering new use cases. And we got it, not necessarily to develop for it eventually, but just out of curiosity, and I think for the average person right now, it might not be as exciting. If I had a family member who maybe needs extra assistance around the house or maybe the use case of delivering something to a different room might be really helpful for most people, I’d say, wait, wait until version two.”

Not long after the interview, Wilson went away for a few days and returned to an unresponsive Astro which had not charged itself. It then seemed to have a breakdown and no longer recognized her. She is now working with Amazon’s support to repair the robot but was keen to get back to playing with the robot when it’s fixed.

“I am definitely not done with Astro. Just putting it into a time-out until I can officially reset it. I chatted with Amazon customer service for 30 minutes and after trying lots of different things they suggested we needed to reset Astro altogether. In the meantime, it kept thinking I was an intruder, so I put it in a dark closet and shut the door. It made noises for awhile, but then became silent. It’s strange that I feel bad about that, almost like I locked a puppy in a closet, but I keep reminding myself that it’s just a robot!”


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