Upon its unveiling yesterday, the Cobalt office security robot—developed by Palo Alto-based Cobalt Robotics Inc and designed by Yves Behar’s fuseproject design studio—defied our expectations of mobile robots with human tasks. The Cobalt wasn’t designed to replace tradition human security guards, but to increase their reach in 24-hour surveillance scenarios. Each robot has the sensing and computational skills of an autonomous car, more or less. They employ over 60 cutting-edge sensors, including day-night 360° cameras, thermal cameras, depth cameras and LIDAR, and a range of algorithms like machine learning. There are smoke-detectors inside, as well. The Cobalt is a conduit for human presence, designed to record, track and report efficiently. There’s also a screen (or face) where a human employee can appear when a task is beyond the capabilities of the robot. This is a truly advanced robot and Behar and his team found a way to present it in an unthreatening way.
fuseproject worked with Cobalt for over a year, initially impressed by both the technology within and the business model of the company as a whole. After initial dialogues, they also found a mutual dislike of previous robot design. “I spoke to them about the fact that all the robots that were being shown at the time had a very Hollywoodish aesthetic. They were all following a sci-fi movie-like design,” Behar explains to CH. “They agreed that this was the wrong approach. They’re all MIT, ex-Google and ex-SpaceX. I like the fact that they had a very different perspective on what robots should do and how they should do it and what they should look like doing it,” he says.
“Anthropomorphizing is, to me, a bit of a cop out,” he continues. “Cobalt is not a gadget. It’s a very advanced unit.” Behar wanted to avoid to the “giant Lego man” look and anything cutesy. “In these new fields,” he adds “the role of the designer is really to invent the right aesthetics, and the right expression, rather than copy and paste what you see people doing in other mediums.” He set out on a path of form and material—and his inspiration was quite different than expected. “I was also looking for a form and set of materials that would be friendly and more reminiscent of office furniture or the types of materials and finishes you expect in a sophisticated workplace. Rather than think of the robot as a set of functions encased in hard plastic, we felt that the robot was much more a part of the office culture and hence more reminiscent of a desk or a chair with intelligence.”
The resulting conical shape employs a tensile fabric skirt. “This confers a level of sophistication and integration into an office and office culture,” Behar notes, but it is also hyper-functional, preventing over-heating and allow access to the technology within. “It’s more thoughtful and balanced than a humanoid white facial mask type of aesthetic,” he also adds, which does deliver a warmer, more friendly persona to the device. In contrast, the aluminum display area draws in one’s attention and happens to be the hub of functionality.
Before its launch, the robot spent a long time in testing. “It was amazing how people find that it has become a part of their office environment or systems rather than an intrusive enforcement-type personality,” Behar says. “That was really the balance of having it be a part, be more about service than just security.” The device is just as much concierge as it is security system. Thus, it’s design approachability. “From an aesthetic standpoint it is more about conveying a reassuring sense of belonging,” he adds.
Regarding enforcement though, it’s worth mentioning that the typical job of an office security guard is to observe, witness things around the office and maybe write a report—intervening only when it is necessary. The Cobalt robot has been designed to remain in place and continue to observe in situations that call for it. In many ways,” Behar concludes, “It’s both a reassuring personality for late-night offices, but also a more efficient and capable way of keeping track of what’s going on.”
Images courtesy of fuseproject