A few years back, CES attendees went mad for Olly, a doughnut-shaped speaker with a voice assistant that adapted to your personality. It was a refreshing change to the seemingly infinite hardware packing Alexa and Google Assistant, and visitors were charmed by its ability to stand up and spin around a circular stand. Olly's creator, a London-based startup called Emotech, offered two prototypes at the show -- one that was excitable and spoke quickly and another that seemed a little more placid -- to demonstrate how Olly would mimic its owners. As TechCrunch reported, the company wanted to start its initial production run later that year.
But that didn't happen. Ten months later, Emotech launched an Indiegogo campaign instead. In its web-based pitch, the company suggested that "final testing and production [was] scheduled for March 2018." The promise of a home robot backed up by a "ground-breaking AI engine" attracted a lot of money: $339,203 from 556 hopeful backers, to be exact.
The company's last Indiegogo update was published in July 2019.
To date, that promise hasn't been fulfilled. The company's last Indiegogo update was published in July 2019, and most of its social accounts have gone silent. The comments section for the crowdfunding campaign is, unsurprisingly, flooded with dispirited backers asking how they can obtain a refund. "I am so incredibly sad that it doesn't seem like Olly is going to happen," a backer called Lillith Avalon wrote. "I have finally given up and requested a refund." Another supporter called Dan Slattery said, "And I've just requested a refund too. I'm done. By the time Olly appears (if ever), it will most likely have been superseded."
So what's going on?
Chelsea Chen, co-founder of Emotech, told Engadget that a "functional beta version" of Olly was completed last year and sent to "quite a few backers" for testing and feedback. "[The] hardware is fully ready," she explained. "The multimodality interaction system is ready too."
The doughnut-shaped speaker still isn't finished though, and the company can't say when it will ship to backers. Emotech switched to a software-licensing model last year and now offers a version of the Olly "brain" to educators. "We have 'taken' the brain of Olly and created the first multimodal AI English teaching assistant," the company explained in a LinkedIn post earlier this month. "It brings authentic pronunciation, higher effectiveness, personalized English learning; and most importantly, affordable. You can find the solution on Huawei Cloud already."
We don't think we can deliver in 2020.
Emotech pivoted to software licensing for "better impact and direct income," according to Chen. The company hasn't given up on Olly -- the consumer version, that is -- but it needs more than a few months to debug everything and deliver the version that Indiegogo backers were promised in 2017. "We don't think we can deliver [Olly] in 2020," Chen told Engadget.
Emotech says its software-licensing business will benefit the "brain" that powers its Indiegogo-funded speaker. The company accepts that some backers have had enough though and wish to be refunded. Chen said it had "finished all the refunding since we don't think we can deliver in 2020" and emphasized that "not every backer [has] asked for [a] refund" because some "would like to wait and go through the journey with us."
For now it's not clear if or when that journey will end.