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Anybots Ramps Up To Bring Telepresence Robot Revolution
July 27, 2011 | William Zimmerman
by Aaron Saenz, Singularity Hub
Are you ready to test drive your robot? At $15,000 Anybots' QB telepresence platform is priced like a car, drives like a Segway, and is as easy to control as riding a bike. Now, the Silicon Valley startup is giving potential buyers a chance to preview the telepresence experience for free via web portal. Jump on and drive a QB around the Anybots office today. (Seriously, you can register and do that right now.) But that's just the beginning. Once you master driving a robot, why not send it out to get you a snack...from a cafe that's a mile away! Don't miss the killer video of the QB sent on a long range mission embedded below. This robot is having such a great year that I had to travel down to Anybots' Mountain View headquarters to speak with business adviser Bill Murvihill about the future of the QB and the company. Big things are on the horizon: 4G roaming, a robot test driving arena, mapping capabilities, remote upgrades, and sales. Oh, the sales. Murvihill thinks they'll be moving 100 robots a month within the next twelve months or so. All signs point to telerobotics making a huge splash in the new few years, and Anybots is already moving to ride the wave.
The counter on the wall reads "30:54:2." That's the number of QB robots actively deployed, the robots online (including those at Anybots HQ), and the robots currently logged in and in use, respectively. Actually, Bill tells me, the number deployed is currently more than forty, they just haven't updated the counter recently. That's a little disappointing, but it's still early in the game and I look forward to those numbers climbing soon. For the past year, Anybots has been transitioning from having a handful of robots out on beta tests to actively selling and placing their QBs all around the world. They have dozens in the US, some in Mexico, a few in Asia, and they're setting up distributors in the EU. Anybots has gone global, and they want to keep on growing. Their first batch of bots is ready for release and they've got the parts and plants lined up to make the next batch. All moving towards that goal of selling 100 robots a month by next summer. While Murvihill wouldn't give hard numbers about their financials, he did say that Anybots should be "cash flow positive by January 2012 and always interested in talking to prospective investors."
Are they going to have enough interest to match their sales projections? Anybots certainly seems confident, and I've been consistently impressed with the QB. Those that watched my first test drive last summer and those who went to the Anybots website and test drove the bot online for yourselves (good for you) will know that using the QB is remarkably easy. You login, you click a button to tell the robot to stand up (it rests on a retractable peg when not in use), and you start driving. Arrow keys move the robot like a video game come to life, and you simply talk to anyone you see just as you would with a normal webcam. That ease of use is still one of the QBs best selling points. You can go from sitting at your desk to maneuvering the bot into a conversation in less than a minute, and it doesn't take more than a few minutes 'inside the bot' before you feel like you're having a natural conversation with someone. Even if that someone is thousands of miles away.
Here's a quick video to summarize the QB for those new to the concept:
Describing the experience of driving the QB, however, doesn't really do it justice. They do have a bot or two at Anybots HQ ready for customers to remotely play with, but that's not nearly enough for all the interested parties. Which is why Murvihill expects they'll be establishing a QB test drive center in Santa Clara in the next twelve months. Twenty or so QB, in a mock (or maybe real world) environment able to drive around and interact with other bots and humans. Those bots will be controlled by prospective customers, probably invited via LinkedIn or some other social network. Think of it as a car dealership, only instead of the latest automobiles you'll be able to drive the cutting edge in telerobotics...and from anywhere in the world.
Actually, Bill Murvihill really likes the car analogy. He says that Anybots faces the "Henry Ford" challenge. They have this great product, but no one in the market really understands what it can do yet, and most potential customers aren't even sure how they should use it. If they can get enough people to buy into the concept, it might change the world, but they have to build interest first, and demonstrate the capabilities of their platform. To Murvihill, the QB is the Model T of telepresence robotics.
Of course, you have to remember the Model T wasn't the first automobile, nor the only one actively competing in its market. So too with the QB. Willow Garage has just spun off a company to bring its telepresence bot into commercial production, and there's also iRobot's AVA, the Gostai Jazz, V*Go, and the multi-talented (and considerably less expensive) Luna on the horizon. Not to mention the South Korean robots aimed at school use, and the dozens of non-mobile and amateur level telerobots currently available. It's a big race that's only just begun. It's too early to know who the serious competitors are, much less predict who's going to win.
But Anybots is doing its best to take the lead. I asked Murvihill what distinguished the QB from its competitors. "Well, we're the tallest bot," he joked. Seriously though, the height of the QB, which can be adjusted from 2′ 6″ to 6′ 2″ in just a few seconds is a pretty cool selling point, but it doesn't top the list. Dynamic balancing does. Look at all the other telerobots out there, and they're probably standing on three wheels or more. And they probably drive around as like a motorized tripod. The QB zips around, adjusting the camera angle as it moves so you hardly notice at it tilts, giving you a robot that is speedy, steady, and lightweight. Around 35 lbs, I can lift the QB with one hand easily, and wouldn't hesitate to carry the bot upstairs. Not so with the 70 lb+ robots we've seen from other companies. If the whole point of telerobotics is that they give you a mobile telepresence, then maybe the most mobile robot will win. The QB is definitely gunning for that title.
Nothing demonstrates the QB's mobility more than this next video. In February, the engineers in Mountain View were craving scones, so they sent someone out to Red Rock Coffee located a mile away. That someone was a QB. What follows is priceless:
How freaking amazing is it to send a robot on a 1.9 mile round trip to fetch you a snack from a cafe? (A cafe, I might add, whose staff hardly blinked at the idea of serving a robot). You may have seen mobile phone videos of this event on MTV or on the web. Here's the most popular clip of the scone-tastic journey for those that care to see things from outside the machine:
So I've linked you to a test drive, told you about an upcoming QB center, and even shown you how Anybots could solve all your snack related problems. Here comes the bad news. This robot is not going to be in your home. Not now, maybe not ever. As mouth watering as this bot may be to all us technophiles, it's not for casual use. This is a business bot. You probably guessed that from the $15,000 price tag, but Murvihill made it clear: while the QB might get a little cheaper, and it will definitely keep getting better, it's not aimed at personal use. Offices, hospitals, factories - those are the markets for the QB.
And the QB could radically impact those markets. Anybots has gotten feedback from customers saying they've forgotten which office meetings they attended in person, and which via QB. The 'presence' of telepresence robots is very real, and could all but eliminate business travel. Murvihill talked with hospital staff about putting QBs on ambulances so that ER doctors can be remotely brought to a trauma site and provide triage as soon as possible. With global production and manufacturing pushing itself into the lowest priced labor markets, robots like the QB could be sent to provide eyes and ears to those investors, owners, or managers on the other side of the globe. (The QB's already being sold in Mexico.) Everywhere telerobotics is applied we can expect disruption. As Murvihill puts it, "we can't imagine the scale and scope of this industry yet."
We can't even use the current capabilities of the QB as a guide for how the world will adopt telepresence robots, because the capabilities of the QB are constantly improving. You've seen the QB take a 1.9 mile journey - that's because each bot is hardwired for both 4G and for WiFi roaming (with two WiFi dongles so it can move from one spot to another seamlessly). WiFi connectivity is already in use with deployed QBs, but the 4G is still waiting for service providers and market strategies to firm up. That will come soon. So too will mapping. The QB has lidar, gyroscopes, and enviable dead reckoning skills. With the right software upgrades it could map its way around your building and drive from point to point at the click of a button. Those upgrades could be easily distributed to users because all the QB traffic goes through a central server (in Austin, Tx). But hey, maybe you don't want to use that server. Fine, in the next few months, the QB should be able to migrate onto private networks as well. The QB has great hardware, and Anybots is constantly building code to use that hardware in new and better ways. The QB of today will not be as cool as the QB of tomorrow. Actually, scratch that. The QB of today will download a few code packets and become the QB of tomorrow.
Expect similar trajectories from every other serious telepresence competitor. This field is ramping up, and everyone in it wants to see the industry explode in the next few years. Will telerobotics become the next big thing in business, home use, or medical applications? It really depends on you.
Consumers expectations are hard for me to gage. Those of you who watched James Cameron's Avatar may need to dial it down a notch. If you sit down for a test drive of a telerobot and expect to go swinging through the vines in a giant blue Smurf with everything in super high quality 3D, you're going to be disappointed. The video quality on the QB can be adjusted from a standard level (good for driving with low latency) to an HD zoom able to read print off papers or whiteboards. But that video is really not so different from Skype. So too with the robot. If you want to pretend the world is a first person shooter video game and zoom around...well, the QB has far fewer rocket launchers than you may be used to. In person, the QB is lovable, but it doesn't have a huge screen or articulated arms. It has a few cool antics (see the clip below) but it's not WALL-E. Neither the QB, nor any of its competitors, can truly live up to our imaginations of what robots should be.
That doesn't mean that this robots aren't freakin' amazing. It just means that it will probably be the practical applications for telepresence robots, not the sensational ones, that drive the market in the beginning. The QB is aimed like a heat-seeking missle at those practical applications. It's robust, it's easy to use, and it's accessible anywhere in the world through most web browsers (IE, Firefox, Safari, Chrome). Is the QB's $15,000 price tag, the lovable face, and the two wheel driving going to win it the race? Much too early to tell. But having visited Anybots I can tell you this: these guys are going to make a good run of it.
Just a little light-hearted abuse of the QB to play you out. (Oh, and yes, the robot is remotely controlling the door on its own when it wants to leave.)
[image credit: Anybots]
[video credits: Aaron Saenz/Singularity Hub, Anybots, Aaron Blumenshire]
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