CADE METZ and MAX AGUILERA-HELLWEG
Max Aguilera-Hellweg for The New York Times.The SpotMini might be able to carry items across rough terrain or into places unsafe for humans.
WALTHAM, Massachusetts — Moving like a large dog, knees bent and hips swaying, the robot walked across a parking lot and into a rain puddle.
There, it danced, splashing water. Then it turned and trotted, climbing over a curb.
The scene was so mesmerizing it was easy to forget that a woman was guiding the four-legged machine, a joystick in her hands and a laptop computer strapped to her waist.
The robot was called SpotMini. It was designed by Boston Dynamics, a company widely known for building machines that move like animals and humans.
In the coming year, Boston Dynamics, which was founded in 1992, plans to start selling the SpotMini, its first commercial robot. The mechanical dog would be a turning point for an outfit that has bewildered people with both its wondrous technology and its seeming lack of interest in making things anyone would actually want to buy.
Even now, it is not entirely clear what someone would do with one of these robots. That makes it hard to get past a question people have been asking about Boston Dynamics for years: Is this a business or a research lab?
“We think the technology has reached a point where it can be deployed productively,” Marc Raibert, the company’s founder, said inside his robotics lab near Boston. “But we don’t know what the big application is.”
As the rest of the tech industry has focused on robotic cars and other contraptions that can navigate roads and warehouse floors, Boston Dynamics, which is owned by the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, has worked on machines that can walk through the woods, into a rock quarry, across your home.
But if driverless cars are still years away from everyday use, walking robots are even further.
These have limits. They can handle some tasks on their own, like spotting a curb and climbing over it. But when moving across unfamiliar spaces, like the parking lot outside the Boston Dynamics lab, they still need a human guide. In person, they stumble and fall more often than they do on YouTube.
No machine comes closer to Mr. Raibert’s vision than Atlas, a 75-kilogram anthropomorphic robot that can run, jump and even do back flips. When Mr. Raibert signaled for a demonstration, an engineer touched a joystick and the robot crashed to the floor.
The sales plans for SpotMini seem vague. It will be priced like a car and it will be sold to businesses like construction companies. Mr. Raibert talked about the machine’s lugging stuff across rough terrain or into places unsafe for humans.
As the technology improves, it could be a delivery robot or an automated security guard.
Boston Dynamics does seem to have an owner willing to wait until the business gets figured out. And with a $100 billion investment fund, a partnership with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, SoftBank is betting on technologies that require years of work.
Robots are a focus of Japanese tech researchers. Schaft, which is owned by Google, is exploring machines similar to those at Boston Dynamics. And the Toyota Research Institute is working toward robots that can serve Japan’s rapidly growing population of retirees.
At Boston Dynamics, Mr. Raibert wants to sell robots to businesses, governments and all sorts of other customers.
He calls himself “a lifer” in his quest to build machines that can do everything animals and humans can do. And if that means finding a way to make money from his experiments along the way, so be it.
Impressive moves, but will a back flip bring a buyer?