LAS VEGAS—It’s back. FoldiMate, an $850 robot that folds, dewrinkles, and perfumes your clean clothes—an early concept version of which was a surprise hit at CES 2017—has returned to the world’s largest tech show this year. And now it actually works, right?
Well, no. It’s still just a concept. Also, the price has gone up to $980, and it no longer even attempts to dewrinkle or perfume. Oh, and the projected released date has been pushed back to “late 2019.”
In other words, it sounds like pretty much everything that people mock about CES, in one very unwieldy package. So, um: What happened, FoldiMate?
“From last year, we got a lot of feedback, and even internally in our company, we were not satisfied with the folding experience,” the California-based startup’s CEO, Gal Rozov, told me Sunday at a media preview ahead of the convention in Las Vegas. (The original concept took 10 seconds to fold each garment and had a maximum capacity of 20; the new one works faster and continuously, though you still have to clip the garments onto the machine one by one.) “So we took an extra year, developed an improved technology, and now we believe we got it right.”
That’s… better than shipping vaporware, I suppose. But if it still hasn’t hammered out the basics of robotic laundry folding a year later, why is FoldiMate back at CES—or even still in business, for that matter?
The answer, it seems, is that the consumer interest in a device that promises to “put an end to laundry-folding as we know it” is legitimate.
Either lots of people really hate folding clothes (and have money to burn), or they just like the idea of delegating mindless chores to a home robot (and have money to burn). When I asked Rozov why he thinks the world needs a laundry-folding robot, he said, “First, you want to save marriages. Second, if you’re bad as me in folding and you want to help out at home, FoldiMate is your rescue.”
The startup built on the buzz from last year’s show to partner in June with BSH, the German household appliance conglomerate. That could lend it some credibility, and maybe some resources, while it tries to work the (ahem) wrinkles out of its technology.
FoldiMate will need all the help it can get, since not only does building a laundry-folding robot turn out to be rather hard, but another laundry-folding-robot startup is racing it to market. That one, venture-backed and developed in Japan, is called Laundroid. Its effort is refrigerator-sized and has reportedly targeted a price tag of $2,000.
This epic quest is an amusing reminder that, in a time when A.I. systems can defeat human prodigies at even the most complex games, machines still lag behind even unskilled human workers in many arenas.
Folding laundry may sound straightforward, Rozov explained, but it’s actually a tricky skill to automate. “Clothes are difficult to manipulate, and they’re unpredictable for a machine,” he said. “You have different thicknesses, different garment types, and eventually you need them all to be neatly folded.” (To mitigate this, FoldiMate doesn’t accept bulky garments, socks, or underwear.)
Perhaps surprisingly, Rozov said the company is not using machine-learning techniques in its software, because he wants to keep the product as simple as possible. “Einstein once said brilliance is about keeping the solution simple,” he told me.
Those may not have been the great physicist’s precise words, but he surely would have endorsed the sentiment—if not its application to a $980 laundry-folding robot.