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A Long-Distance Robot Relationship

Telepresence robots could soon be available for remote workers.

Last week, as I tapped a laptop keyboard in Massachusetts, a humanoid robot whirled around a lab in California. I tapped more slowly and the robot turned until I saw Trevor Blackwell, CEO and founder of telepresence company Anybots, which manufactures the robot, in the laptop window.

“There’s a mirror over there,” Blackwell said, pointing, and I tapped the keys again until I was facing it. I saw a slender, wheeled robot with two cameras and a small square video screen on its head displaying the real me. This was QB (pictured above), the latest Anybots robot, which is just about to go into private beta testing.

I tried out QB at the 2009 IEEE conference on Technologies for Practical Robot Applications (TePRA) conference, where I also met Erin Rapacki, Anybots’ newest employee. Rapacki was flying out to the company’s office in Mountain View, California the next day, but had set up her laptop and headset so that conference attendees could try the teleoperated robot and chat with her west-coast coworkers.

Using the controls felt like playing a simple video game, and there was less of a lag than I had expected, so Blackwell and I could carry on a conversation. He told me that the company aims to launch a telepresence robot, like QB, commercially in the second half of 2010. Rapacki added that the approximate cost of such a robot is about $10,000 - $15,000.

I turned the robot again, and saw another version, this one with long arms and splayed fingers, head downturned. A third version of the robot is equipped with a laser, so that the telepresence operator can point to things in the robot’s environment.

I still had a hard time understanding the advantage of telepresence robot over, say, a Skype screen for a corporate environment. “You can communicate with people while they are in their element, such as an office, manufacturing floor, or home,” Rapacki explained. “It’s easier to drop in on people this way or inspect parts in a manufacturing plant.”

To get a better idea of the Anybot in action and their vision for corporate collaboration, check out the company’s videos on its site.

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