Every once in a while a seemingly rational company missteps badly with a new product launch. The CEO, perhaps intoxicated by the charms of a persuasive consulting team, or just giddy from the prospect of global domination, decides to boldly go in a new, exciting direction.
Back in the 1980's the Sinclair C5 proved that Sir Clive Sinclair, a genius with an apparently sane grasp of market economics, was not immune to product craziness. His little-red-wagon styled personal electric vehicle was widely ridiculed and laughed off the road.
More recently Palm's Folio debacle produced a collective sense of "Oh My God!" from investors. Fortunately Palm's CEO yanked it out of the pipeline before more harm was done.
This week iRobot stepped into the fray with two new product launches. The Looj, an extension to their robotic cleaning systems, is quite happy crawling down gutters removing unwanted leaf build-up. This makes sense - and sits neatly alongside their Scooba and Roomba products.
The ConnectR however is a completely different robotic beast. The systems is billed as a "telepresence" system that you leave at home, then control remotely from across the internet. (Not to be confused with Cisco's corporate Telepresence products - though it would be nice if the two were interoperable). The robot roams around your house under your control, providing visual feedback from a webcam and voice communications through built in speakers and a microphone.
What would you want to do with your new $499 remote control? The iRobot site outlines many wonderful possibilities:
Participate in family moments even though you're working late. On a business trip? Read your kids a story and see their faces light up. Join the fun from near or far. Throw a party from a thousand miles away. Tell Fido he's a "good boy" even while you're on vacation.
According to the Washington Post:
IRobot chief executive Colin Angle conducted an unintentionally hilarious demo of the thing in which he, as the traveling businessman, "called" his wife (really, another iRobot exec) by logging into the ConnectR from his laptop and speaking to her through it. She asked him to read the kids a bedtime story, at which point the robot wheeled towards the bedroom. Then a set of pictures portrayed the ConnectR interacting with kids and dogs.
Perhaps Colin Angle should have used his ConnectR to talk with Sony chief Sir Howard Stringer. One of his first tasks after taking the helm of the ailing electronics giant was to can the Aibo robot dog project. Maybe Mr. Angle will be considering the same solution for ConnectR shortly.