Thursday, December 13, 2018

"Postmates' quest to build the delivery robot of the future"


Postmates X's first rover, low to the ground with four rugged wheels, looked like a Roomba with a GoPro stuck on top. The team named it ET (“because it was the first of its kind out in the world”) and put it on the streets of San Francisco. They saw almost immediately that it was too small. If you were, say, staring at your phone while walking down the sidewalk, you could easily trip over the thing.

The next version, called Curie, stood a meter high, tall enough to appear in a pedestrian’s periphery. To make it even more noticeable, they added speakers, which played music like the Super Mario theme. Curie made the first real delivery—a batch of iced tea for the engineering team—which felt like proof that if they just kept iterating, they could actually make this work.

Then one day, one of the early rovers was cruising down the street—this one called Roberta, for Roberta Bondar, Canada's first female astronaut—when it rolled into the view of Ryan Hoover, the founder of Product Hunt. Hoover tweeted a photo to his followers, inviting them to “name that robot.” It took three minutes before someone compared Roberta to a bomb disposal robot from The Hurt Locker.

To Kashani, that represented a real problem. Here they were, trying to build a rover that would bring people joy, pick up their iced tea, deliver their late-night burritos, pipe tunes throughout the sidewalk—but what did that matter if people still associated it with doom, or wanted to kick it, or tried to dismember it, or push it into the street?

"There's this perception issue, this dystopian view," Kashani says. "We have five seconds to change people's minds.”

So Kashani developed a new objective: The rover had to work, yes, and successfully navigate its way into restaurants without running anyone over. But it also needed to make people happy. The next prototype, Valentina—named for Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to fly to space—looked like a Fisher-Price play truck. The team added googley eyes, and lips. Painted it in bright colors, found more cute music to play. Then someone sketched up Serve, more like a child-sized shopping cart, and they knew they had it right.

Creating an anthropomorphic robot is a design gamble. Give the bot a face and people expect it to behave like a person, which can annoy people when it doesn't. Plus, Serve has a sort of ice cream truck effect. Lehmann says kids always want to run up and play with it.