Just when you thought you’d never have to partake in bipedal locomotion ever again, a Boston robotics company is banking on the idea that its latest creation will convince you to do exactly that.
That creation — announced today and hitting the market next month — is called “gita” (pronounced “jee-ta” and spelled with a lowercase “g”), a brightly colored, carbon-fiber robot that looks like some futuristic mixture of an exercise ball and cooler, or perhaps a commercial-size rice cooker flipped on its side and strapped to a pair of rubber bicycle wheels.
Its only purpose: to follow you wherever you go, dutifully toting your belongings like a mini pack mule on wheels (minus the animal welfare concerns).
Greg Lynn, co-founder and chief executive officer of Piaggio Fast Forward, a Boston start-up owned by scooter-maker Vespa, said the robot will compete with last-mile transportation solutions like e-scooters and ride-hailing companies.
That might sound counterintuitive considering you can’t ride gita, but Lynn foresees an overlapping customer base, especially in urban settings.
“We’re trying to unlock the value of walkability in American towns and cities with a device that will appeal to people that are primarily driving and taking Ubers for their short errands and trips,” Lynn said, noting that, unlike e-scooters, gita won’t crowd busy sidewalks or put pedestrians at risk of physical harm. “And we’re trying to convince people that it’s mentally and physically healthier to walk that mile instead of electric scootering or bicycle-sharing it.”
“At a walking speed, after all, you’re more connected to your environment,” he added.
The company’s motto: “Autonomy for humans.”
Following its owner at up to six miles per hour, gita can carry up to 40 pounds of belongings inside an inner compartment that is big enough to hold about two grocery bags, according to Piaggio Fast Forward. The 22-inch-tall vehicle has up to four hours of battery time, relies on multiple cameras for navigation and is designed to operate on hard surfaces (no snow or sand).
How does gita follow its owner?
The robot pairs to its owner’s legs with cameras that scan and track their motion. The vehicle can also discern when other people enter its field of view, allowing the robot to go around them and continue following its paired user. Don’t worry, the company says, unlike a smartphone or an e-scooter, gita doesn’t track its owner’s location, and the robot’s cameras do not record or store video or images.
Gita cannot climb stairs, but it can move around any building with elevators or ramps. Also worth noting is that gita cannot speak, communicating instead via sound and buttons that can be pressed to turn on or adjust it. The robot’s creators worked with the Berklee College of Music in Boston to compose a library of distinct sounds — which adjust dynamically according to the volume of ambient noise surrounding the robot — to indicate gita’s battery level or when the robot is ready to pair with its owner.
The cost: $3,250.
Asked whether gita might offer lonely walkers some form of subtle companionship, Lynn said the robot was designed to look stylish, but its visage is subdued and somewhat impersonal.
“We didn’t want people feeling too self-conscious while they were being followed by a robot,” he said, noting that the machine lacks humanlike facial features.
The machine can be shared with the owner’s “crew,” a small group of people selected by the robot’s primary owner. The company says tests have revealed that trips using the robot typically involve at least two people.
Jeffrey Schnapp, Piaggio Fast Forward co-founder and chief visionary officer, said moving around the world with your hands object-free means a pedestrian can more fully interact with their environment, whether that means being more curious or socializing without distraction.
“We see gita as support for someone’s daily life and an extension of yourself, but we also see it serving as a type of connective tissue among friends,” Schnapp said.
First, the robot’s creators admit, they’ll have to familiarize the public with the idea of a robot that acts as an extension of its owner. When people are shown photos of the robot, Lynn said, some assume the machine is designed to “deliver a burrito to your front door.”
If they’re able to build awareness, the company hopes gita’s appeal will move beyond tech bros and urban millennials looking for an expensive picnic toy. Schnapp said he believes the robot could also appeal to older people or individuals with disabilities, for example, who might benefit from having a machine to help carry groceries and run errands with added support.
“That population of people is active and moves around their community, but isn’t the demographic for mopeds and scooters,” he added. “We think this is a way to serve their needs as well.”