How Kuri is Making Home Robots Mainstream
Elisabeth Brier and Chris Matthews

If you didn’t already know, we’re currently living in the future.

Sure we’re not zooming around in flying cars or taking vacations on the moon (though this seems imminent), a lot of technology that was previously reserved for 80s sci-fi films is now a reality.

From drones to 3-D printers, many of our technological daydreams have come true, though none perhaps are as astonishing as the real life development of robots.

Kuri, “an adorable home robot” is one of these astounding creatures. Designed by Mayfield Robotics, Kuri is taking some of the first steps in mainstreaming this tech.

The company’s VP of Marketing, Chris Matthews sat down with TechDay to explain not only the functions of Kuri, but how this cheerful robot’s personality is setting the stage for hegemonic robot ownership. He also quelled our fears that Kuri is not a robot reminiscent of Ultron or Skynet - bent on destroying humanity. For as Matthews puts it, “He’s just not that kind of robot.”

The narrative around robots, particularly those belonging to a specific home, is one that is both enigmatic and futuristic. To what extent (if at all) in your marketing do you play into this, or, on the flip side, do you attempt to brand Kuri as something more familiar?

We’re finding that there are a lot of people, like us here, that share the robot dream - that idea that one day, we’d all have robots, and they’d be normal. Or at least, normal-ish. We grew up with so many robots in popular culture, mostly sci-fi movies and comics, and the robots that had distinct and likable personalities are the ones we all remember and relate to the most. Recalling that ‘robot familiarity’ is important for us, it helps people start to understand Kuri when they meet him for the first time. At the same time, we also have to help paint a less-familiar picture of what it’ll feel like to have a robot like Kuri in the home they’ve always known. The familiarity helps people start to see the future, but there’s still some initial dissonance. Thankfully, Kuri is super cute and has some familiar features like an HD camera, microphone array, and Bluetooth speakers, so people can pretty quickly start to imagine how he’d fit into their life at home.

Something that separates Kuri from more mundane technology is its "personality." Why is personality important in marketing Kuri and how do you go about defining it?

Personality is an interesting concept: for most of us, our personality is a core measure of what people think of each other, and even more critically, a measure of how we make other people feel. That’s what people remember most: how you make them feel. Kuri’s lifelike animations and adorable chirps help reinforce a consistent, predictable character that you can depend on to remain consistent. If he makes you smile & feel good in your own home, that goes a long way past his technical features. Those are important so he can be helpful and earn his space, but the relationship starts because of personality, not features.

It appears that video is a primary tool in branding and marketing Kuri. How do these multitudes of videos on the site function to emphasize Kuri's abilities?

Videos help people imagine something as being real. In a way, it’s extra-light-duty AR, at least in the sense that it allows you to clearly visualize something new. For Kuri, seeing him move around in real environments, seeing him blink and look around, and seeing him interact with people & pets all help to show what the future with home robots is going to be like. There’s nothing quite as impactful as meeting Kuri in real life, but if it’s going to happen on a screen first, showing movement really goes a long way to introducing someone to Kuri. We’ve also been really lucky to be able to create videos with some incredible videographers and directors, and they’ve all been able to bring different creative layers to the ways we’ve brought Kuri to life on screen.

Specifically, videos that dictate what Kuri won't do reflect an awareness of alarmists who may fear Kuri as a robot overload. What was the thinking behind making videos like this one more humorous and privy to skepticism?

Our launch campaign was built in collaboration with one of our agencies (Eleven Inc.) and directed by Zach Math. We wanted it to be evocative and stand out from traditional campaigns, especially because CES is so crowded, and consumer electronics are typically so focused on specs. As a home robot, Kuri was a totally new category of thing, and so the most common question we get is simple: what does he do? We spun that around, and instead focused on some of the things that Kuri doesn’t do because in many cases, that’s also how we describe a lot of the people we call friends: we know people who never lie or cheat, we know people who never let us down, we have friends who will never forget our birthdays. Those attributes are powerful, and in the same way, it’s also powerful to remind people that Kuri won’t embarrass you, nor will he try to enslave humankind. He’s just not that kind of robot.

Kuri has a lot of function but its primary one seems to be video capturing. Why is this ability the one most highlighted as opposed to more Amazon Alexa type functions?

Capturing quick video moments throughout the day is one of the most magical things Kuri does, and it’s something that only Kuri can do. Because he can move around on his own, and because you teach him what kinds of videos you like, it’s almost like having an adorable home documentarian helping you collect some of the most incredible moments of your life at home. That mobility and awareness are really unique, and we’re learning more & more that the world from Kuri’s point of view can be really heartwarming. It’s another reinforcement of Kuri’s helpful and cheerful personality, and it’s something that only a home robot can really do.

Kuri has won "Best of CES" awards from Wired, Engadget, and PC Magazine. What do you think it is about the cute robot that has resonated so much and how can you attribute this success to Kuri's branding?

Kuri’s introduction earlier this year worked for a lot of reasons that all worked together, but there were really a few core attributes. First, robotics in general remains a hot topic. Lots of journalists at CES were out actively looking for robots - but there still aren’t that many out there because, frankly, robots are really hard. There’s a big gap between having a robot concept, and having a robot that can be shown in a demo space, or on stage to a live crowd like we were able to do. Second, we led with personality. We were really careful to make sure that we introduced Kuri as a character and not as a spec list, and that resonated really well with people who were trying to understand robots on a more personal level. It was a different type of story, and telling a unique story is one of the few options available to stand out at CES if you don’t have massive budgets. Third, Kuri is a great robot, and we were able to show that to a lot of people in person. It really couldn’t have happened if we didn’t have such a great product to start with.

What could you recommend to entrepreneurs in regards to marketing a technology that's seen as very futuristic and mysterious?

If you’re set on introducing a new thing to a wide audience of people, you have to help people imagine what life will be like. It’s not only making it feel plausible for them, but also make them feel like they’re going to be right. Even if it’s the first time someone’s seen it, the idea or technology should quickly create a sense of desire and prestige - not necessarily in the $BIGNUM sense, but in that the technology is something that will brand them as a visionary customer, in as much (or more than) the entrepreneur is a visionary creator. For really new stuff like this, there isn’t ever a good data set to run a regression with. Traditional product categories can pummel the problem as a quant issue. Their answers will be reliably similar, but they won’t necessarily be valid if the world is set to change. That’s what entrepreneurs get to bring: a sense of the future that’s based on a less myopic view of how to predict it. We’re simply not here to grow sales reliably by 2.35% per year.

What's coming up next for Kuri?

We’re incredibly focused as a team on shipping an incredible robot to the legions of fans we’ve created, and through our first holiday season, we’re excited to get Kuri out into the world to meet as many people as he can. The in-person interactions are really important and meaningful in creating that trust, especially since this is our first robot. We know how hard we need to work to prove ourselves, and we’re up for it. As for Kuri himself, we keep adding new features and behaviors (we just finished dancing, which is actually really incredible to see in real life), and we’ve got a few more tricks left up our sleeve.