A few years ago, I spent a week test-driving the Anybots telepresence robot (think: Segway with a head and video screen attached) in the Fast Company office. I almost immediately rammed the robot violently into a glass door that was impossible to see on my laptop, where I was controlling all the action.
Technology has advanced since then. A new telepresence robot developed by Cisco and iRobot (the company behind the Roomba automated vacuum cleaner and the PackBot military robot) bypasses the problem of tricky navigation by navigating automatically—much like the Roomba. Could this make telepresence robots more appealing to the masses?
Cisco has many years of experience in traditional telepresence. IRobot has the autonomous navigation technology down pat. The Ava 500 video collaboration robot leverages all that knowledge: it’s an autonomous telepresence robot that’s controlled via an iPad interface. Users can sit at Cisco telepresence units or using browser-based telepresence software to communicate through the robot, which has a 21.5-inch HD resolution screen on its "head."
There are two ways to teach the Ava 500 robot how to get around: you can upload a floor plan of the office into its interface, or you can let it roam, figuring things out as it goes along. Once it has all that information available, you can command the robot to go to a specific office down the hall. It can move for six hours before it needs charging; if the Ava 500 doesn’t have enough battery life to follow user commands, it simply declines.
Telepresence robots are a popular party trick at Silicon Valley gatherings; everyone will stand around mingling, and all of a sudden, there’s one of the hosts on a roaming screen. But they’re also useful in work situations, says Snorre Kjesbu, the general manager of Cisco’s Telepresence Systems Business Unit. "Being able to see someone face to face is instrumental. We’re taught to read people’s faces since we were newborns."
Kjesbu believes there are a number of things that improve in the workplace when you use telepresence technology: you can make decisions faster, scale knowledge, use knowledge within an organization in better ways, unify your organization, and cut down on your carbon footprint (by traveling less).
There are two big factors, he thinks, that will play a part in the robot’s success—the autonomy and the size of Cisco’s market. "If you look at Cisco and telepresence, we have 50% of the world market, we’re an established player in shipping lots and lots of telepresence equipment every year," he says.
These are big enough advantages that they could give the Ava 500 a serious edge over competitors from smaller startups that require manual robot navigation. But it will still likely be something of a niche product—used for site tours, inspections, and those times when the boss just wants to check up on everyone from afar. The average worker won’t need a telepresence robot on a daily basis.
The Ava 500 will be available in early 2014 for a monthly rent of $2,000 to $2,500.