Inside Anybots And The Rise of Human-Size Telepresence Robots (videos)

*Updated 7/12/10
Telerobots are here.

Anybots wants to put you inside a robot. The Silicon Valley startup recently announced that their telepresence bot, the QB, will be shipping in October of this year with a price tag of $15,000. What does that buy you? A zippy two-wheeled human-sized robot with a lot of character and some distinct telepresence possibilities. I journeyed out to the Anybots home office and spoke to CEO Trevor Blackwell about the QB and the future of the company. Check out the video of my trip below. Anybots may not be the first to create a telerobot, but they could be the first to bring them into the mainstream.

Telepresence is So Over, Telerobotics is Where It’s At

Business travel is expensive, and many companies have started to cut costs with advanced teleconferencing rooms. But a static experience can’t match the dynamic interactions you can have with an actual telepresence robot. These bots can move around the office, letting you engage in impromptu conversations and giving you a real physical body for people to identify with. The QB embodies the modern telerobot: it is agile enough to maneuver around a home or office and sophisticated enough to provide the audio and video you need to interact with your peers.

While at Anybots, I had a chance to test drive a QB for myself. The following video gives you a brief snapshot of the experience. Although the telerobot is ripe with real-world applications, I have to admit that I just had fun driving the thing around. Robots are neat.

We’ve discussed the capabilities of the QB before, but some of its features certainly bear repeating. The two-wheeled bot self-balances as it moves and stands still, constantly shifting to stay upright. You can even push the bot around (up to a meter or so) and it will return to its original position. The camera (and laser pointer in the right eye) are specially calibrated to stay aimed where you like as the bot is jostled. Weighing in around 30 lbs, the QB is easy to take up stairs or otherwise carry with you for short journeys. It can run for about 8 hours on a charge and has about the same video and audio quality as a Skype session on a high speed connection. Controls are simple: arrow keys or WASD to move around and clicking anywhere on the screen shoots the laser where you aim. A button on the interface extends the robot’s stand and let’s it recline (seen at the end of the video).

You'll be able to see facial expressions from the operator on the small screen, but the QB is more about the robot experience

But here’s what you can’t get from reading the QB’s specs: it has personality. From the driver’s side, the QB is really just a mobile webcam. You drive around, you look at stuff, you interact with people, and you occasionally shoot someone in the eye with a laser. It starts off fun, but it feels practical very quickly. From the other side, though, things are different. The QB has a tiny screen – about 3.5 inches or the same as many smart phones. That’s not a lot to work with, so you start to focus on the operator’s voice and the robot’s physical presence. After a little while you just accept that there’s someone standing in front of you talking to you. And that someone is a robot. Sure, your friend Tim may be running the QB, but you never lose the sense of the machine’s robot-ness.

Is that a fail? An epic win? As we mentioned before, the Hub has an internal disagreement about the future of telerobotics. Keith likes Willow Garage’s Texai because it gives you a big screen so you can see what he feels are the crucial expressions on the operator’s face. I like the QB because if I’m going to be working with a telecommuter in a robot I don’t want to lose the sense that I’m working with a robot. For me, it’s like the Uncanny Valley. If you’re not going to give me a telerobot that looks and operates exactly like a human (a la Surrogates) then I’m going to find more meager similarities frustrating. I’d rather look at a cute robot and check in with a small screen from time to time for facial expressions than deal with a huge floating head on a stick in all its Skype-like glory. Maybe I’m strange like that.

Whether or not you want a big or small screen on your telerobot, Anybots has one key advantage over most other robots out there – it’s actually for sale. Trevor Blackwell assured me that ‘hundreds of QBs’ are going to ship starting in October of 2010. At $15,000 each that adds up to some significant revenue for a 10-person company. Most of the early customers are looking for a practical solution to making their telecommuters mobile in the office. They want a way for their employees to move freely around their campuses even if they’re at home in their pajamas. Blackwell himself often telerobots in each morning while eating breakfast before physically journeying over to Anybots HQ.

When it comes to human-sized robust telepresence solutions, it’s pretty much Anybots or nothing at this point. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve seen plenty of other telerobots, but the ones freely available to buy are small. Others have promising innovations (like expressive arms) but are still in research. Willow Garage’s Texai is waiting in the wings, probably to be seen in the next few years. For now, though, if you’re a serious company looking for a serious telepresence robot then QB is the best platform available. That means that early adopters are going to flock to Anybots, and that’s a distinct advantage that could be paying dividends for years to come.

*Update 7/12/10: I’ve received several emails, including one in comments below, pointing me to several ‘full-size’ telepresence robots ready for purchase. I’m currently looking these over. If any stack up to the QB, I’ll review them as soon as possible. For now I’m still of the opinion that the QB is the best human-sized telerobot platform available in the near term.

Anybots in the Future

Blackwell and the Anybots team were pretty upfront about what needs to get done before the QB can start shipping. At the top of the list is getting the video on the QB head up and running reliably. The tiny screens produced for smart phones are simply not designed to be easily connected to a robot via USB. They are also working on getting the web interface for the bot compatible across multiple browsers and bug free. Anybots is confident that these glitches will be solved in time for launch come October.

The web interface for the QB is easy to use, but only available on FireFox and Mac OS at the moment. That should change by launch.

Once QBs start moving off the assembly line and into offices around the world, what’s next? A lot of things. Every engineer and designer I spoke to had something to add to the robot’s list of capabilities. Foremost among those is probably self-docking. Right now the QB has to be manually driven into its station (shown at the end of the video clip). Right now, the QB can control a few doors and lights around the QB office, Blackwell says that they are likely to release an open API for the QB to give customers and third party developers the means to expand that kind of capability. Other improvements are likely to include syncing files and video through the bot (for presentations) and better noise cancellation and isolation so that the QB can work even better in a crowd.

Further down the line, Blackwell is keeping the drawing board open for what the QB may include. Expressive arms that wave around as the operator talks and moves? Possible. Actual gripping and moving arms? Possible. More automated movements so the bot will turn to look at people as they talk or go where you click on the screen? That’s possible too. Anybots seems more interested in using customer feedback to determine which direction telerobots should take than to prematurely pin down how the QB is going to evolve in the years ahead.

I, however, am free to speculate. Eventually, telerobots will serve as human surrogates – at work, at home, at play….wherever. The only question is, will they be able to do so because they become exactly life-like, or because we will all become more accepting of robotic presences? I’m guessing more of the latter than the former. We’ve seen an early attempt, from Kokoro, at getting telepresence robots to look very human. The results are creepy (there’s that Uncanny Valley again). Creating a tele-operated replicant is going to take a very long time, but telerobots are already here. As the QB and its successors transition from office novelties to daily necessities, we’re going to become accustomed to seeing robots all around us. At first these bots will be operated by our colleagues and friends, setting the stage for autonomous robots to one day take their place among us as well. If successful, the QB is likely to be the first step towards a more robotic world.

I for one welcome our teleoperated robotic overlords.

[image and video credits: Aaron Saenz/Singularity Hub]
[source: Trevor Blackwell, Anybots staff]

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