I was standing off to the side of the showroom at CES while engineers worked in hushed voices, fussing over a $16,000 artificial intelligence-powered laundry-folding machine. The machine wasn’t giving back the T-shirt I put in, and for one brief, terrifying second, I really thought I broke it.
I had brought my own Verge T-shirt to try out a prototype of Laundroid, and I had to coax Seven Dreamers CEO Shin Sakane into letting me drop my shirt in, instead of the demo shirts they had prepared. As he expected, it didn’t work. After about 15 minutes, the Laundroid opened up to reveal nothing but an empty drawer. An engineer had to reach into the machine to pull out the shirt.
It turned out that the machine had trouble recognizing my T-shirt, which was a dark gray, instead of the brightly colored demo shirts that were on hand. We gave it another try, this time dumping the basket of demo shirts into the insert drawer. 10 minutes later, I turned the dial to open up the slider door, which revealed one neatly folded pink T-shirt.
Seven Dreamers debuted Laundroid at CES last year, but it brought a new model for this year’s show. The refreshed design is strikingly more beautiful, with an added sleek mirrored finish that looks good in any room. Plus, the concept photos showing the machine integrated into a home’s walls make a lot of sense.
Laundroid uses multiple robotic arms to pick up the clothes, which are then scanned by cameras. It’s connected by Wi-Fi to a server that uses artificial intelligence to analyze the object, and a neural network containing 256,000 images of different clothing items. The robot arms then determine the best way to handle the clothing, where to hold it up by, and how it should be folded. You’ll need a couple of hours for it to finish folding a load of laundry, as one T-shirt takes about 5–10 minutes to fold.
Yes, there’s something kind of comical about developing the most complicated, expensive solution possible to a simple chore like folding laundry, but Laundroid’s real strength lies in the way it uses artificial intelligence to gather data on clothing, and how it uses that data. Clothing items are analyzed piece by piece in order to relay information to the robot arms, but the machine uses the data of the type, size, and color of the clothing to sort it in different ways. A companion app will keep track of every piece of clothing analyzed by the Laundroid, and let users categorize clothes by household member or item. It’s essentially an online wardrobe organizer.
For confidentiality reasons, the company has only released mosaic censored footage of the robotic arms folding the clothes inside the machine. This is roughly what that looks like:
Of course, because this is CES, Laundroid is joined by another laundry-folding robot called Foldimate. Though it costs a fraction of the price at $980 and is about half the size, it requires users to individually clip on each clothing item. But the biggest, most important difference of all? The Foldimate demo I saw wasn’t actually a fully working prototype, meaning clothes-folding technology wasn’t all there yet. Laundroid, though it’s still working out issues like being able to distinguish dark clothing, was able to produce a simple folded shirt.
Backed by $90 million in investment capital, Laundroid was jointly developed by Panasonic and Japan’s largest homebuilder Daiwa House. The $16,000 price tag is pretty intimidating, but the company hopes to bring the cost down to under $2,000, if it ever goes into mass production. Sakane cited Tesla, hoping to mimic its model of releasing a high-priced product followed by significant price cuts after its release. We’ll have to see the final price point when it opens up in the US for a pilot program and preorders at the end of this year. But it looks like for now, the best gadgets for folding laundry are still your hands.