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Amazon has put a gigantic — and growing — team behind its secretive home robot project, Insider has learned. But production delays and concerns about market appeal have some employees worried the yet-to-be-revealed device will be another colossal failure like the Fire Phone, which cost Amazon nearly $200 million.
More than 800 Amazon employees are now part of the team developing the Alexa-powered, home-roaming device, internally codenamed “Vesta,” according to an internal document reviewed by Insider. It’s one of the biggest hardware initiatives in years for Lab126, the Amazon personal-device unit that created the likes of the Kindle e-reader, Echo smart speaker, and Alexa voice assistant, said six people directly involved in the project, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak about internal projects.
For comparison, the streaming company Roku had 817 employees at the end of 2017, when it surpassed $500 million in revenue, and wearables company Fitbit had 1,101 employees at the end of 2015, when it reported $1.8 billion in total sales.
But even with the company’s backing, the Vesta team hasn’t moved fast enough amid shifting strategies and delayed launch dates, sparking internal concerns over its potentially weak market viability, according to these people.
It’s a risky bet for Amazon, which started developing Vesta roughly four years ago as a top priority. While Amazon envisions big things for Vesta in the smart home space, some insiders question whether it’s the right call to be spending so much time and resources on what could end up a niche, gimmicky product — or worse, a failed project like the Fire Phone that cost Amazon $170 million in write-offs in 2014.
“People are very skeptical — we’re worried it could turn into another Fire Phone,” one of the people told Insider.
Amazon’s spokesperson declined to comment.
The Vesta project, named after the Roman goddess of the hearth, home, and family, is a major investment area for Amazon, as Insider previously reported. Led by Lab126 president Gregg Zehr, the team has grown significantly in the past three years, with CEO Jeff Bezos showing personal interest. But constant launch delays have put the project under more pressure, leading to high turnover lately.
One prototype being considered is a device that’s the size of “two small cats,” or about 10 to 13 inches wide, people familiar with the product said. It will likely come with multiple cameras, a screen, and a mic, said two people, who described it as a “Fire Tablet mounted on wheels” that has the ability to move around the house on voice commands.
The design could change, and Amazon could ultimately decide not to launch the product, these people added. The basic idea, they said, is similar to a photo Bezos shared on Instagram two years ago, which shows the Echo speaker taped to iRobot’s Roomba. Insider and Bloomberg previously reported on some details of the project.
The big question is just how much mainstream appeal the product will have, especially when it’s expected to be much more expensive than Amazon’s other personal devices, Insider previously reported.
To address the practicality concerns, the Vesta team has considered positioning the device as a mobile meeting platform for home office use, two people said. In theory, the device would allow someone to take a virtual meeting while walking around the home, without having to sit in front of the desk all day.
Amazon could potentially add new features by allowing plug-ins and widgets that can measure home temperature, air quality, and humidity, according to people familiar with the discussions. It is also planning to include a small compartment to the device so it can carry objects, as well as fire detection and home security technology using its cameras and sensors.
It could also add a waist-high, retractable pole with a camera that moves up and down, these people said. The vertically moving camera could potentially be used to find missing items, like keys and wallets, in the home using computer vision, one person added.
Amazon’s commitment to Vesta reflects its continued ambition to make the Alexa voice technology ubiquitous in places where people spend most of their time, like the homes. Amazon is the leader in the US smart speaker market, accounting for nearly 70% of smart home consumers, according to eMarketer.
Yet, it’s unclear how commercially successful Amazon’s devices are, as it doesn’t disclose its hardware devices sales. Amazon has often taken a scattershot approach to personal devices, releasing not only massively successful products like the Echo speaker, but also experimental projects like a flying in-home drone.
Vesta’s early sales projections are low, and Amazon could initially launch it as a limited, invite-only product, similar to what it did with its fitness band Halo, according to these people. Doing so could reduce the risk of ending up with a pile of unsold inventory, as Amazon did with the Fire Phone.
In order to save costs, Amazon has moved one of Vesta’s suppliers from China to Mexico, people said. While that’s helped cut expenses, the new supplier has caused a series of production issues over quality and training, further delaying the launch.
Still, Amazon appears to be in the late prototype stage of Vesta. Employees pointed to the growing size of Vesta’s tech support team, which now exceeds a few hundred people, as a signal of a nearing launch. Typically, tech support teams could take months to build up as on-the-ground training is required. Some employees said Vesta needs a robust tech support team simply because Amazon is entering a completely new product category with little experience, and there’ll be a need to answer a lot of customer questions and complaints post-launch.
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