It’s not yet clear whether telepresence robots are cost-effective, however. Semonite claims that the $6,000 Vgo can pay for itself just by saving the need for a few business trips. The only competing robot on the market, the much taller QB from the California startup Anybots, might need to replace a few more trips to justify its $15,000 price tag. Yet both robots compare favorably with dedicated videoconferencing rooms, which are sold using similar arguments and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Tom Serani, cofounder of RatePoint, which helps businesses monitor their online reputation, says that his Vgo paid for itself in about a month by allowing managers to maintain a presence among call-center staffers. He says that this remote managerial presence helped spur a 30 percent increase in sales.
Other companies are preparing to launch telepresence robots aimed at addressing what Colin Angle, cofounder and CEO of iRobot, says is a need for significantly more intelligence. For example, instead of having to steer a robot like a remote-controlled car, he says, a user should be able to ask it to navigate to a particular meeting room, or click on screen to indicate which person to follow or walk alongside.
“The products that have launched so far are really videoconferencing on a remote, driveable platform,” says Angle. “It has some appeal, but they don’t build a version of you in a remote location able to be as effective as you would in person.” His company, which makes the Roomba vacuum cleaner and the military PackBot, is working on a version, dubbed Ava, that he says will solve some of these problems.