Tuesday, September 2, 2014

WIDJETS, a Postmortem.

This was a response to a poster Steve Grimm at the LinkedIn discussion group Robotics and Machine Intelligence, HomeBrew Robotics; originally posted on June 4, 2012. 

The title of the original topical post was “Does the robot community, hobby or professional, need another "ready out of the box" platform or base with which to build their experiments on?”

While the discussion topic that this quote is from was intended as a reflection on the challenges of marketing a new robotics product, it turned out to be a good postmortem review of WIDJETS.

“…If you build it, they will come.” Steve, literally all of your comments above sound just like ours from a few years ago. But these days, if for some reason the subject comes up, my wife and I just smile, slap our foreheads and say, “What were we thinking?”

I can only speak to the educational robotics area, but what has happened is the confluence of two factors. First is the fact that the overwhelming majority of our K-12 teachers are not equipped, either in background or expertise, to teach a robotics course. As a result, teachers always look for resources that come as pre-packaged kits complete with lesson plans and teacher’s manuals. Also important in any school’s purchasing decision is the availability of vendor-sponsored workshops, training seminars, and corporate-sponsored robot competitions like FIRST Robotics.

The other factor is the incredible amount of money available in the form of budget set-asides and private and public grants for STEM education initiatives; amounts so large they defy any logic! The perverse aspect of this STEM grant-driven market environment, is that as a business catering to educational robotics, ones customers become effectively neither the students nor the teachers, but the granting agencies.

Companies like LEGO, VEX Robotics and Pitsco /TETRIX, have all adapted to this STEM grant-driven market environment, tailoring their robotics products to both the teachers’ and granting agency’s expectations. The amount of resources, in terms of time and money, which it takes to play the game at this level, puts the educational segment of the robotics market out of reach for any individual or small company operation.

Unfortunately, if you look at some of the product advertisements in magazines like Servo or Robot, you’ll see that this STEM grant disease is beginning to infect other segments of the robotics market, too.

My wife and I naively thought that the homeschool market would be free from these influences; but sadly, no. There turns out to be no end of free or low cost robotics workshops available to homeschoolers, supported through agencies like the City Parks and Recreation, and which are subsidized, either in part or in whole, through STEM grants of one sort or another.

Just as an example from the homeschool world, what small web-based effort is going to compete with the likes of a Khan Academy (http://www.khanacademy.org) when the Khan Academy benefits from grants from both Google and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation?

“Build a better mouse trap and people will beat a path to your door” was once valid wisdom, but not anymore. What the flood of STEM grant money into the educational robotics market has managed to do has been to destroy all of the normal market indicators and feedback loops one would historically look at when starting a new business venture.

So my humble advice regarding any robotics business venture you might start. Just be cautious.

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