Robotics company Anybots has today announced a “telepresence” robot called the QB, scheduled for release in Autumn 2010.
The robot is designed to help with video conferencing by offering a mobile robot with two cameras and a screen built in. It also comes with three microphones built in, Lidar, and is mounted on wheels for easy maneuverability. A user can control the robot via software loading onto a laptop. They can turn it on, move it, and record footage wherever it goes.
“The purpose is to let you interact with your colleagues at the office on their terms wherever you are,” Anybots CEO Trevor Blackwell told TechEye. “That means being able to join in conversations wherever they’re happening, not just in the conference room in front of their computers. Most of the important discussions in an office don’t happen in conference rooms. It means being able to see what they’re building in the lab, or make sure the shipment in the warehouse is where you expect it to be.”
He told us that when you send it to conferences instead of flying there you can network with people in the hallways between talks, “which is usually the best part of conferences”.
By not having to fly to conferences, of course, you can also avoid expensive travel bills, but since the QB is a whopping $15,000 it’s a pretty expensive mega-webcam, even if we all secretly want one.
In order to understand where Anybots is coming from with this product, however, we need to put ourselves in the shoes of someone who is looking after multiple offices, warehouses, etc.
If a CEO is in a big business meeting in California and a problem arises in a warehouse in New York a long and costly flight is needed in order for the CEO to see what’s going on and sort it out. It also completely stalls the meeting that was going on. With a QB robot, however, the CEO can remotely log onto the telepresence bot, which will alert people in the warehouse that it has been activated, and will allow the CEO to wander about the factory to inspect things.
Of course, we could raise the question of what makes this any different than calling someone in the warehouse and getting them to walk around with their webcam to show the CEO what’s up. That would certainly be much cheaper.
The QB, however, offers a few advantages. There’s no hassle in trying to get someone to hook up a webcam for you, as it’s already there, ready and able. It can be controlled yourself instead of telling someone to move around for you. This is particularly important if employees are trying to conceal something by not moving a webcam to a certain area. The QB goes wherever it is ordered to go. It could even be used for spot checks whenever a boss thinks people aren’t doing their work.
“There’s an idea that permission to always being connected and to engage is there,” said Bob Christopher of Anybots.
It works via Wi-Fi, which both the person remotely controlling it and the QB robot itself need access to, but that shouldn’t be a problem if you can afford the robot in the first place. It will also come in varying heights to suit people’s needs.
Anybots believes that the QB will help break down barriers between people in the workplace, alleviating some of the stress and strain of face to face meetings. The robot itself looks like Wall-E, with this choice of appearance being aimed at providing a non-threatening persona for a CEO in the workplace. It all sounds rather nice, but some employees will never feel comfortable with knowing their boss is watching, no matter how friendly those robotic eyes look.
Anybots is currently marketing the robots to technology firms, but hopes to make them much more widespread in the future. We may even see them acting as sales agents, according to Anybots, where the robot would accompany a customer and provide feedback, suggestions, and technical answers to any of their questions. And here we were thinking we already had robots working in sales.
The QB will use the standard lithium ion batteries we use in laptops and each charge will deliver six to eight hours of spying on your employees. Or talking to them. Whatever works.
As for the future, Blackwell told us that Anybots is “excited about adding 4G city-wide wireless support so we can even send it out to the coffee shop with the gang.” The Anybots guys are also running a beta test with several customers over the summer to see what needs improving.
It’s probably only a matter of time before you jump on the tube and see a QB following someone on. Or you may pop into work only to have a QB speak with your boss’s voice to tell you that you’re late. You might even see someone bringing one to dinner or the cinema. Maybe even to watch a film about robots.
Some sketches showing how the QB works in various situations and some videos showing it in action can be seen below.