I've had my eye on Aldebaran Robotics, a company based in Paris, France, for a while (and not just because of my love for pain au chocolat). In addition to raising € 5M in venture capital earlier this year, Aldebaran has spent the last three years developing an affordable autonomous humanoid robot called Nao.
Nao speaks, emotes, and moves. It runs on Linux and it's powered by a rechargeable battery -- nothing particularly revolutionary there. It sounds like the real novelty will be in the software interaction and mobility (it has 25 degrees of freedom). Initially it's pitched as a research and development platform for the next generation of applications, but eventually they want Nao to be a household robot to assist with tasks. (At only 23 inches tall, though I suspect these capabilities will be relatively limited.)
From Aldebaran's website:
"Eventually, with many improved behaviors, it will become an autonomous family companion. Finally, with more sophisticated functions, it will adopt a new role, assisting with daily tasks (monitoring, etc.)
Featured with an intuitive programming interface, the entire family will be able to enjoy the robot experience. Yet, full of new technologies, our robot will also satisfy the demanding techno-addict's expectations."
What interests me the most is the idea that the plan is for Nao to always be user-programmable, even ultimately by the average consumer end-user. Given the problems most people I know have resetting VCR clocks and setting automatic functions on air conditioners, I'm a little skeptical that consumers will want something they have to "train" with any sort of programming interface, rather than just buying a specialized end-product with the necessary behaviors already built in. However, I can't argue with how beneficial it could be to have even a basic understanding of programming in a graphical "block" environment be so commonplace. As with most recent technology, though, I anticipate it'll be the kids doing this while the parents look on in wonder.
This puts Aldebaran in competition with Willow Garage's PR-2 robot; they're also designing it as a university development platform to encourage research into next gen applications. PR-2 doesn't seem to be nearly as close to production as Nao, but with greater size and dexterity it may have more potential for a broad range of household tasks.
Aldebaran is planning general public release at the end of 2008. The press release on their website doesn't indicate pricing, but this blog suggests it'll go for € 10k initially with a target price of € 4k when they can ramp up production.