Ten years ago, Amazon introduced the Kindle and established the appeal of reading on a digital device. Four years ago, Jeff Bezos and company rolled out the Echo, prompting millions of people to start talking to a computer.
Now Amazon.com is working on another big bet — robots for the home.
The retail and cloud computing giant has embarked on an ambitious, top-secret plan to build a domestic robot, according to people familiar with the plans.
Code-named Vesta, after the Roman goddess of home and family, the project is overseen by Gregg Zehr, who runs Amazon’s Lab126 hardware research and development division based in Sunnyvale, Calif.
Lab126 is responsible for Amazon devices such as the Echo speakers, Fire TV set-top-boxes, Fire tablets and the ill-fated Fire Phone.
The Vesta project originated a few years ago, but this year Amazon began aggressively to ramp up hiring. There are dozens of listings on the Lab 126 Jobs page for openings such as “software engineer, robotics” and “principle sensors engineer.”
People briefed on the plan say the company hopes to begin seeding the robots in employees’ homes by the end of this year, and potentially with consumers as early as 2019. The timeline could change, and Amazon hardware projects are sometimes killed during gestation.
An Amazon spokesperson said the company doesn’t comment on “rumors and speculation.”
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It’s unclear what tasks an Amazon robot might perform. People familiar with the project speculate that the Vesta robot could be a sort of mobile Alexa, accompanying customers in parts of their home where they don’t have Echo devices.
Prototypes of the robots have advanced cameras and computer vision software and can navigate through homes like a self-driving car.
Former Apple executive Max Paley is leading the work on computer vision. Amazon also has hired specialized mechanical engineers from the robotics industry.
The project is different from the robots designed by Amazon Robotics, a company subsidiary, in Massachusetts and Germany, people familiar with the project say.
Amazon Robotics deploys robots in Amazon warehouses to move around goods and originated as a company called Kiva Systems, which Amazon acquired in 2012 for $775 million.
The promise of domestic robots that offer companionship or perform basic chores has tantalized the technology industry for decades. Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, introduced the three-foot-tall, snowman-shaped Topo Robot back in 1983. Though it could be programmed to move around by an Apple II computer, it did little else and sold poorly.