Faced with an intellectual problem you just can't handle? Why not swap out your head for a different one? Oh, that's right, you're not the AVA. iRobot's prototype for the autonomously navigating platform of the future was on display at CES 2011. The AVA is a three wheeled robotic pedestal that can move around in a human environment, dodging obstacles and going anywhere you want it to go. And it's head is anything you want it to be...more or less. Tablet PCs, notebooks, and other similar portable device can plug into AVA, letting you instantly convert a computer into a mobile robot. For CES, AVA was sporting an iPad. While iRobot was shy in describing what the ultimate uses of AVA would be, it seems clear that it will have a fairly wide range of applications. Telepresence is the most obvious, but it could also become an assistant bot that follows you with your computer as you travel around (great for doctors), or just a personal robot for your home (depending on price). No news yet on when AVA will be ready for market, or even if it will appear in its current form, but you can watch the bot in the video from Botjunkie below. The way that AVA pans and tilts its head makes it seem almost alive.
AVA's got a lot of power no matter what head you put on it. The robotic body is replete with sensors. Laser range finders, acoustic sensors, accelerometers, bumpers - all the go to navigation hardware you'd expect. It also contains two PrimeSense cameras - the same 3D sensors used in the XBox Kinect. It uses LIDAR, 3D vision, and inertial measurement to get around, and it can receive commands through its head (touchscreen let's you point to where you want it to go!) or through gentle nudges on tactile sensors on its neck. That neck, by the way, can be adjusted from around three to five feet, meaning that AVA will work well as a laptop stand or as a face-to-face telepresence platform. Versatility is clearly a key ingredient.
I'm pretty impressed with AVA's navigation skills, as well as its pivoting head. (This is the sort of body that I'm hoping Willow Garage will give its Texai telepresence robots once they move towards manufacturing.) Yet the ability to swap out tablet PCs is really the ingenuous idea here. Build a great robot body, give it plenty of expansion ports (as AVA has), teach it how to get around, and let the rest of the world decide how to use it. In the video above, the iRobot representative's insistence that AVA wasn't simply a telepresence robot is probably a good sign that the company wants this platform to have very wide appeal. If the price is low enough, and the robot reliable enough, I think that's a very smart play. One of the emerging tech paradigms is that selling a product isn't nearly as smart as selling a platform other people can sell products for. I think that the first robotics company that can build a machine that other companies will want to plug their products into is going to make a lot of money. I'm not sure if AVA is that machine, but it's certainly in the right ballpark.