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The telepresence robots are coming
May 19, 2010 | Chris Payatagool
Daniel Terdiman is a staff writer at CNET News covering games, Net culture, and everything in between. E-mail Daniel.
QB is a new telepresence robot designed to help companies save money on videoconferencing. (Credit: Anybots)
It looks like a cross between a Segway and Wall-E, but a new "telepresence" robot being unveiled Tuesday is designed to help companies save money on travel and expensive teleconferencing technology.
Currently known as the "QB," the $15,000 robot from Mountain View, Calif.-based Anybots, is designed for people in remote offices or locations who want a rich communications experience without having to use a complicated video conference system.
QB, which is slated to go on sale this fall, has both a video camera and a video screen embedded in its "head." It has wheels and can be moved around remotely by computer. It is designed to be able to steer its way clear of obstacles or people. As long as both the robot and the person controlling it both have access to Wi-Fi, QB should work for just about anyone.
According to Anybots COO Bob Christopher, the idea for QB came from new theories about interactions between people and robots. The hope, said Christopher, who previously was CEO of Pleo maker Ugobe, is that QB will engender a "more humanistic approach" to the relationship between humans and machine.
A big part of that, Christopher explained, comes from a notion he said is prevalent amongst twenty-somethings who are accustomed to always being connected. "There's an idea that permission to always being connected and to engage is there," said Christopher.
What that means, he continued, is that using a QB lets a person have a persistent connection with co-workers, customers, or clients by placing the robot at a remote location and directing it to move around, say, a conference room during a meeting, broadcasting what's going on to the human controlling it from afar.
Having a slightly cartoon-ish robot sitting through and moving around a company meeting may sound like a strange notion, but Christopher argued that QB's approachable design (see video below--but allow for a slight echo caused by the camera's microphone being close to the robot's speakers) actually breaks down barriers of awkwardness that people sometimes feel in person-to-person meetings. It's hard to say whether that will prove to be true, but it's certainly a fact that QB comes off as whimsical, nonthreatening, and nimble.
The robot's $15,000 sticker may sound costly, but Christopher said that at this price, some companies may well choose to buy multiple units to place in each of several remote locations. That way, he continued, someone running a meeting could get an easy and flexible view into what's being said--and what's being written on a white board, for example--in each location, and all without having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on enterprise-class conferencing systems.
Ultimately, he said, Anybots' vision is to put high-quality audio and video in a wide variety of companies at a low cost.
For now, Anybots is focusing on technology companies as clients. But eventually, Christopher said, he hopes that customers will come from places like retail stores, firms needing reception help, and even those needing more sales engineers. In the retail environment, for example, a QB could wander the floor with a customer who could be asking it purchasing or support questions. The person controlling the robot could answer the questions, essentially meaning that the robot could serve the role of sales clerk and Geek Squad helper. That same ability for someone on the robot's end of things to ask questions and have someone else answer them would remain true in many different environments.
It's far too early to tell if Anybots can create a market for the telepresence robot. But there is a lot of interest in putting robots into new environments and helping people with long lists of tasks that previously could only be done manually.
Whether that's a good thing is another matter. But for now, robots are coming, and companies like Anybots are hoping they can be among the first to convince us that there's nothing odd about inviting these mechanical helpers into the room.
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