Back in January, French startup Keecker made a bit of a CES splash with a cute and curvy home entertainment computer capable of moving around on its own or as instructed by an app-based remote, and transforming any wall, door or ceiling into a huge projected screen. Gizmag dropped in on the company's Paris home at the weekend for a chat with CEO and Founder Pierre Lebeau, and a one-on-one with the multi-talented Keecker prototype.
Before diving into a demo of the impressive-looking prototype, Lebeau shared some of the inspiration for the project. The idea for Keecker came from "years of frustration at home, trying to find a setup without necessarily needing a TV screen or connecting a projector to a computer and keyboard, speakers etc. What I wanted was to have the rich content from my computer, but not on a small device. And something that I could share, more discreet than having a TV screen, fixed somewhere."
"Though there are 'Smart TVs' now with apps and whatever, it's not exactly the same content that you have on your computer and you can't always do so much, plus the remote controller is kind of cumbersome and not really practical to use in general."
"I wanted to have a system that I don't see, no cables, nothing. If you turn it off, you don't see it any more. I tried for years to put the cables inside the walls of my apartment and get everything connected, but in the end it was always in one spot. It wasn't perfect. I couldn't move it. If I wanted to have the same setup in my bedroom, lounge, kitchen, kid's bedroom, or whatever, it would be very complicated. And very expensive. That was really frustrating. I can do it, sure, because I'm geeky, but I wanted your average Joe to be able to go ahead and have that experience."
"As a Product Manager, you're trained to fix problems, told to try and think of how to solve a big problem with a great solution," he explained. "I had an idea of a robot running on Android that would move inside the house." Lebeau founded Keecker in 2012 to work on the project full time.
The ex-Googler was faced with a choice of Windows, Linux, Android or an in-house operating system, and selected Android due to it being "very flexible, it's supported by a lot of chips, and a lot of people work on it. It's stable, and the apps are really easy to make and manage. That's why I wanted to have that ecosystem of Android. Plus I was with Google, so I was familiar with the platform."
What's under Keecker's shell?
Though the prototype shown above looks production-ready, it isn't. There's still a lot of work, and a fair bit of tweaking, to be done. As such, the following hardware specs rundown may change by the time consumers get the chance to buy their very own Keecker.
The computer is built around a 1.2 GHz Freescale quad-core processor, and comes with about 1 TB of hybrid storage – with solid state looking after the core system and applications side of things (for snappy performance and fast response), and a hard drive for storing digital content.
The device comes with a number of sensors for collecting data about its surroundings, such as indoor temperature and humidity, light and sound levels, CO2, and a cliff sensor to prevent it toppling over the top of the stairs. Infra-red and ultrasound are used for object detection, and the now familiar accelerometer, compass, and gyroscope are also in residence.
There's a top-mounted HD camera with a fish-eye lens above the sensor. The camera produces a round panorama, "but we cut it and are able to make it flat and straight so people can see all around and above without moving the device."
The actual sensor for the production model has not yet been chosen, but the company is looking for something around 8 megapixels for stills resolution and at least 720p for video, but is hoping for 1080p by the time of release.
The video feed resolution will be adapted according to a user's bandwidth for remote viewing "to ensure that you have an image that is refreshing fast enough, rather than a super-high-quality image." There will also be at least one microphone, potentially two, for hands-free calling or video chats.
Lebeau says that the throw ratio of the projector is going to be between 0.8 and 0.9:1, which means that users will be able to enjoy a big image on the wall or ceiling even if space in the room is tight. The prototype offers 720p resolution, but again, the developers are looking into bumping that up to 1080p, and the LED lamp puts out 1,000 lumens. Keecker's CEO told us that this "is very unusual for a portable projector, because it's not one. It's the type of technology used for something that you'd plug straight into the power outlet, and isn't portable. We're the first ones to make it run on a battery."
The Li-ion battery is only described as being big at the moment, though no doubt actual capacity details will surface closer to production time. The company is claiming a run time of days between charges. When Keecker detects that its battery is running low, it will auto return to its base station for a top up, which will take about 2 hours. Interestingly, the charging process is also cable-free, via induction charging at the base station.
The rather tactile matte white of the housing is interrupted by a black skirt, behind which are six full-range speaker drivers throwing out the audio all around the unit. The developers are working on ways to intelligently direct the sound using onboard sensors and Keecker "smarts" to produce a left/right stereo effect for users. If used for audio playback only, the device will support all audio codecs currently native to Android, as well as specific to playback apps. And audio can be streamed from Keecker to Bluetooth speakers, if desired.
I was played Money by Pink Floyd through the system and though a little light in the bass department, it wasn't too shabby. Not too shabby at all. Lebeau told me that a woofer is to be added that will give Keecker some solid low end presence, and that the half dozen drivers will also be beefed up a tad. "It's going to be loud and it's going to be good quality," he quipped.
Unusually, Keecker will not accommodate any cabled connectivity at all – it's wireless or bust. Those looking to feed in digital entertainment from an external hard drive will have to find a way to send it over wirelessly. You won't be able to use your home theater or hi-fi setup, or watch Keecker's stored content over a wired connection to a TV (though Wi-Di is supported). You'll also not be able to plug in any games consoles either, all games will be run from the device's own storage or played online.
Lebeau did tell me that the company does have something in mind for owners of optical media players, but is remaining tight-lipped for the moment.
A question of control
Keecker will be able to navigate rooms on its own without bumping into furniture using a combination of sensor data, camera feeds and some Keecker "secret sauce." But users can also control actions wirelessly and remotely using an Android/iOS app running on a smartphone or tablet, or via a browser-based web application for other devices, over an encrypted Wireless-N connection through a user's home router/network. If there is no Wi-Fi router, Keecker will create its own network for users to connect to.
Directional icons in the app, with camera image below, are used to control Keecker's moves. The projector, too, can be controlled via the app (changing the viewing angle or tweaking the autofocus, for example), as can the camera at the top and the output of the speakers sitting behind the black grille.
The smart device running the control app can act as a Bluetooth input peripheral for replying to emails or creating documents, or a dedicated Bluetooth keyboard can be paired with Keecker.
The current prototype is running Android 4.2.2, but will have at least 4.3 for production (depending on chip support for the final configuration). In addition to the controller app, there'll likely be some proprietary Keecker apps developed "such as an app to check the sensor readings, but though we want to showcase what we can do with it, we want to let developers take it to the next level by being even more creative than us." As such, a full API will be made available in due course.
One clever device to rule them all
Keecker can act as a digital entertainment center for video, music, photos, web browsing, and gaming. Users will also be able to take advantage of its big screen for working on documents, keeping up to date on all matters social or just checking emails and news feeds. But given that today's tech-savvy consumer is likely to have an arsenal of existing, separate devices to take care of their entertainment needs, why jump into unexplored Keecker territory?
"I don't think that people enjoy the experience of watching a movie in the bedroom on a laptop or tablet," Lebeau explained. "They might do it because it's pretty much the only solution without having to buy and install a TV, home cinema audio setup and the cables that go with them. You don't necessarily want to have such a setup in the bedroom all of the time. The devices that we have today are practical because we can take them everywhere, we have everything everywhere, whenever we want. But it's a very big drop in terms of experience from a TV in the lounge to a laptop in the bedroom. We can bring a comparable experience throughout the home."
"To me, there seemed to be a hole in the market for a computer system that was built for a collective experience. It's something that's really new. It's not just another this or that. No-one has this type of device today, they have bits and pieces, but not in the same device. I'm all for giving choices to people in their experiences and allowing them to do stuff they've never been able to do before."
Keecker can also help give peace of mind. It can act as a remote security sentinel, with the app allowing users to look in on the home while they're away over a live online feed. The bot can be sent to check various rooms, or set to fire off a notification when an unusual activity is detected – a light being switched on unexpectedly, the sound of an intruder creeping around or an alarm being activated, for example.
"Definitely to begin with, we'll have a live stream," said Lebeau. "We want you to be able, without even getting an alert, go in and check in, not just for security, but if you want to talk to your spouse. You can go in and project your own image to your house and you can start talking very simply. For the security aspect you can stream the content live, there will potentially be the ability to store that at some point. Whether it's stored locally or on the cloud remains to be seen."
Coders outside the company could open the system up to even more functionality. "Developers could make it do rounds in the house, and move around and project this and that and even play sounds like someone having a discussion, or BBC news or dogs barking. And do that randomly, in different spots in the house, and at random times. It's not like those systems that just turn a light on and off every day at, say, 7 pm and turn it off at 11, so if you're a burglar you look at the house for two days straight and you know no-one's there."
Lebeau told me that part of the platform would be routed through the company's cloud system, to allow the company to connect with the user. Customers could then be notified if unauthorized activity is detected, such as the device being activated over a different internet connection (which may indicate that Keecker has been stolen), for example. "We want to be very close to our clients and our users, and we want them to be happy so we'll do everything we can to provide them with the best customer support and user experience possible."
The Keecker experience
As mentioned earlier, the prototype on show at the company's Paris HQ looked to be more than a mere proof of concept, it definitely had the look of a finished product. But a prototype it is, and I wanted to see it in action.
The first thing to note is that the tracks on the CES renderings that were to move the robot around the house have been abandoned in favor of two motor-driven wheels at the front and freewheeling support wheels at the back. The electric motors driving the wheels in the prototype were somewhat noisy, but Lebeau says that the production model will be much quieter and much more powerful.
Instructing the Keecker prototype on where to move, tweaking the thrown image onto the wall, loading up digital content and so on were all undertaken via the smartphone app. The production unit will be able to follow a user around and navigate around objects itself.
It will also be possible to initially set up and store a "favorite" location, for subsequent one button recall. On receiving such a command, Keecker will make its way to the appropriate wall or ceiling location to throw up the chosen the movie, photos or decorative art.
I didn't notice any lag between touching an onscreen icon and the appropriate action and, on the whole, the bot did exactly what it was instructed to do. If anything, some of the controls at this stage of development were a little too sensitive, leading to a few misfires when lining up the projected image on the wall. Such things will no doubt be worked out ahead of production.
In the multi-windowed office of Keecker, the LED light didn't quite manage to project a really sharp, bright and color rich big image onto the white walls. It's watchable, but looks a little washed out. But this is also true of many desktop projectors, old and new. Draw the curtains or dim the lights, though, and it's another story.
Keecker was quick to load up and throw content. I watched a couple of online videos, listened to some music and hit the Chrome browser to look up a familiar website or two. Allowing for the office rather than home setting, color me suitably impressed.
The big questions – when and how much?
The folks at Keecker still have a few kinks to iron out, and it's all hands to the pumps at the moment to work on the remaining promised functionality ahead of release. The first with a chance to get their hands on a production model will be the crowdfunding community.
"What we've done so far is to demonstrate the device to the industry and find partners, and that's helped a lot, we now want to engage with people who will eventually buy it and use it," said Lebeau. "We believe that the early adopters, the people that will get it straight away, the people that are very technology aware, they'll potentially be our first users, and we hope to find them through Kickstarter. We'll be able to talk to them on a big scale, not just knocking on doors and saying Hi, do you want this?"
Though much of the design will be pretty much set in stone, some aspects may change during the Kickstarter campaign in response to backer feedback.
"We're hoping to get a lot of good feedback about what they want, what features they want, and what kind of technology to include. Which is why we don't want to lock into anything particular. I mean it's not going to become square or cubed, but we want to get people's feedback because if you're making a tablet, you can pretty know today what people want, everyone can give you their ideas because everybody knows what it is. This, no-one knows what it is and we feel that that particular community is the best community to talk to and engage with to get that feedback and see if it's something that we should continue doing, or if it's just a few tech journalists who are interested, so it's kind of a test for us."
The expected retail price for a Keecker bot will be somewhere in the region of US$4 - 5,000, and each unit will be assembled in France. Kickstarter backers, though, will be offered the chance to get the technology for less. The campaign is due to start at the end of September.
In the meantime, it doesn't look like either the press or the public will get a chance to see Keecker in the flesh, though there was some talk of possibly making an appearance in Berlin this September for IFA 2014. So, for the moment, you'll have to make do with our gallery photos and the promo video below.