The annual trade show CES (Consumer Electronics Show) is a deluge of smart appliances, many of which do things totally unnecessary–case in point, the talking A.I.-powered toilet–but there are some products that legitimately excite the masses and prove to be of real-world use.
A Beijing startup named Forward X is hoping its self-driving robot suitcase belongs in the latter camp. Having made its debut at the Las Vegas trade show to positive coverage, the Ovis is ready to hit the global market with a crowdfunding campaign that starts today.
The company foresees most of its initial customers to be Americans, which explains why the marketing effort is mostly centered around its NorCal office. But a week ago, I got the chance to meet company founder Nicholas Chee for a demonstration in Hong Kong.
At first glance, the Ovis looked like any other suitcase: it’s rectangular, black, has four wheels. But upon closer examination, I could see it has two USB ports for charging gadgets and a 170-degree wide-angle camera lens that is essentially the Ovis’ eye. That, combined with the facial recognizing, body movement-tracking algorithm developed by Chee, allows the Ovis to follow its owner around without additional assistance.
The Ovis’ eye.
The Ovis’ body movement tracking algorithm is successfully tracking my body parts.
At CES, the suitcase could only follow a person from behind. Since then, the company has improved functionality so the suitcase can now follow its owner side-by-side, and according to Chee, avoid obstacles (aka moving humans) that may get in the way. The video below shows the suitcase in action.
That video, of course, is provided by Forward X. I conducted my own test during our meeting, and I found that the Ovis mostly lived up to the marketing claims–it followed one of Chee’s colleagues from hotel entrance to check-in desk and successfully stopped when someone got in its way–but there were also slight bugs here and there, including a 10 second stretch when the Ovis began spinning in circles.
Chee claimed these software kinks will be worked out long before the product hits the market. Considering the funding Forward X has already secured ($10 million from CDH Fund and Eastern Bell Venture Capital) and Chee’s pedigree (he studied electrical engineering at Beijing’s University of Science and Technology and won China’s prestigious Robocon competition in 2003), the company should be able to work things out.
There’s one more reason to be confident: the Ovis isn’t Forward X’s first self-driving product. Ovis actually has an older brother of sorts–a self-driving factory flatbed truck that is being used in some of the warehouses of JD.com, one of China’s e-commerce giants.
Chee, 37, said he started Forward X two years ago after a decade of working as hardware and software engineer for various companies in China because he “wanted a companion during his travels.”
As mentioned, Forward X is aiming this at the U.S. market so Ovis has been built to cater to the more strict U.S flying regulations. For example, the suitcase has a built-in weight sensor to detects its own weight; its 50wH battery (that can supposedly push the Ovis for 12 miles) can be easily removed to get through security; and the suitcases’ lock is TSA-approved.
The Ovis is not the first suitcase of this type, however. A company named Travelmate launched something similar (also via crowdfunding) a year ago. But the Travelmate sells for $1,100, the Ovis’ crowdfunding price is $399, and final retail price will be around $700.
Personally, I’m happy just lugging my own bag at airports. But then again, I’m no jet-setting CEO.
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