Cynthia Breazeal, creator of the world’s first family-centric robot, Jibo, has won the 2014 L’Oreal Women in Digital Awards, which support female tech entrepreneurs revolutionizing the beauty industry. The two other winners announced yesterday make some sense as cosmetics innovators: Victoria Eisner cofounded GLAMSQUAD, an app-based beauty delivery service and Tania Yuki founded Shareablee, a consumer intelligence company.
But a robot?
“It’s a little counterintuitive,” admits Breazeal, an associate professor who directs MIT Media Lab’s Personal Robotics group.
Breazeal conceived of Jibo as an alternative to our current flat-screened, app-filled devices. As a tabletop home robot, Jibo orients toward people, recognizing voices and providing personalized engagement, such as telling children stories or taking messages for specific family members. Earlier this year, Jibo raised over $2 million in an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign and the first robots are set to ship in April 2016. Given that Jibo is an open third-party app platform, there is really no limit to what it could be used for, and this is where L’Oreal comes in.
“We’re very interested in how Jibo can be used for personal coaching, personal tutoring, and activities that will help people learn a new skill or acquire a new competence,” Breazeal tells me. “You could imagine a whole host of services, utilities, skills that could be put on Jibo that could order beauty products or help someone with what makeup color product would match a scarf.” Other potential uses could be personalized advice about how to apply makeup. (Think: personalized YouTube makeup tutorial.)
It’s all very early on in the process: The Jibo team and L’Oreal will be discussing collaborations soon. But in broader terms, Breazeal and L’Oreal are keen to ensure that women’s voices and needs are heard at an early stage of technological innovation. For instance, women have expressed frustration over how smartphones are designed for the larger male hand, making it difficult for women to browse comfortably. Breazeal has observed for herself how few women there are in high-tech innovation, particularly in areas of primary research in fields like robotics. “It’s slowly changing, but it’s been a tougher nut to crack than any of us had expected,” she says.
Breazeal says that in creating Jibo, she considered her own needs and experiences as a busy working mother of three. “I am the one creating the experience of home,” she says. “That is a carefully crafted experience because this is where the people you love are. I think that perspective is needed when you think about the future of the home and home technology.”
She says that Jibo is designed to foster interaction between family members. Currently, most tech devices are created for individual, rather than group, use. Conversely, Jibo is meant to promote community, by allowing family members of all ages to use it while they are together. “When I think about the experience of home, I want technologies that make me feel that the family is coming together and that there is a warmth and a humanity to that experience,” she says. “I do not want my home to feel like it is on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.”