March 31, 2010      

Anybots Inc. was founded in 2001 by Trevor Blackwell, using personal funds resulting from the sale of ViaWeb, a web-based authoring tool for building online stores, to Yahoo (ViaWeb became Yahoo! Store). In January 2009, the Mountain View, Calif.-based Anybots made a splash at the Consumer Electronics Show with the launch of a beautifully designed, remote-controlled mobile telepresence robot called QA.

Anybots developed QA to act as an “avatar” that can physically and gracefully interact with individuals in distant locations. In essence, Anybots was betting that a remote set of mobile eyes and ears, capable of being physically maneuvered at a distant location, would be far more engaging and useful than a typical videoconferencing session.

Features and Form
Built on a Segway Robotic Mobility Platform (RMP), the QA does an excellent job of avoiding obstacles despite control lag time. These same algorithms make it easier to move through doorways, since the operator can point a QA at the door and trust it to determine a path through the open space. By moving at about 6 mph, the QA can keep up with humans during a walk around the office. The product also boasts of full voice telephony services to speak and hear, as well as a laser pointer.

The QA’s semi-humanoid body shape appears nonthreatening, but a poor design decision blunts the value. The 7-inch LCD monitor on the QA has two problems-it is mounted on QA’s chest, too low for comfortable eye contact, and does not provide a streaming image of the operator. While the operator sees what is in front of QA through two 5-megapixel cameras, people near QA only hear, not see, the operator.

One QA competitor, the Texas Robot, a telepresence system from Menlo Park, Calif.-based Willow Garage Inc., uses a full-size LCD monitor as the head of the robot, so people look at the operator, just as with a personal videoconferencing system. Willow Garage also employs a four-wheeled cart for the base, reducing complexity while still providing the same range of motion.

Another competitor, Polycom Inc., based in Pleasanton, Calif., takes a very pragmatic approach to its remote telemedicine system. The company mounts one of its videoconferencing systems on a low-tech cart that must be wheeled around by a person. Designed to specifically address a shortage of doctors, the Polycom Practitioner Cart HDX is typically moved to the patient by a nurse, who also acts as an extension of the remote doctor’s hands.

Uphill Battle
Whatever the technical capabilities of QA, Anybots faces the uphill challenge of overcoming objections to a telepresence solution whose cost is expected to be between $15,000 and $30,000 per unit, particularly when some of the same capabilities can be duplicated by a person carrying a $300 netbook running free Skype videoconferencing software. Anybots and other developers of mobile telepresence systems counter that there are some applications that are ill suited for traditional telepresence systems, and that mobile telepresence provides capabilities that can be used in new classes of applications. For example, the remote monitoring of factories in other countries, including the ability to interact directly with people on the floor, or security-sensitive jobs such as prison guard, could benefit from Anybots telepresence products.

Anybots marketing pushes the concept of enabling the operator to “be in two places at once” (increased productivity) and reducing travel costs. These same benefits apply to personal and corporate videoconferencing systems, most of which cost considerably less than Anybots’ products.

The team-building value of remotely controlling an avatar through the halls of a distant office might sway some users, but again, these solutions compete with low-cost technology, much of which is becoming ubiquitous. For example, most pundits expect Apple’s iPad to include videoconferencing hardware and software in version 2.0 by fall 2010. Netbooks already support personal telepresence as part of their standard equipment.

QB
Anybots’ latest telepresence system, the QB, drops the humanoid shape for a Segway RMP base, a support pole, and a round housing at the top holding two cameras and a small (2.5- or 3-inch) video screen. Fewer motions (no bending at the waist) and lighter weight (35 pounds rather than the 55 pounds for the QA) reduces the QB’s price to an estimated $10,000 to $15,000 price range. Anybots has signed RoboMatrix, a division of Innovation Matrix Inc., to represent the QB in the Japanese and Taiwanese markets. Although no partnership or large sale has been announced for the QB, recent reports from Anybots show new QB inventory in-house for a large production run.

Mobile Manipulation
Anybots’ QA and QB mobile telepresence systems currently make for great YouTube demo videos, but few practical applications. It should also be recalled that Anybots produces the Dexter platform, which pioneered a new method of biped walking, and the Monty model, which has one fully articulated hand and one gripper. These robots also provide engaging videos, but are even more unlikely to supply Anybots with a strong revenue stream in the near term. A combination of Monty’s manipulation and QB’s mobility is also a possibility, but further exploration of the mobile telepresence market is the logical place for Anybots (and its competitors) to begin.

The Bottom Line
Mobile telepresence, the ability to videoconference from a mobile platform under the control of the remote operator, faces many marketing and technical hurdles. Anybots, with its semi-humanoid QA system and the more utilitarian and half-priced QB model, stakes its claim as a leader in the mobile telepresence market, competing with InTouch Health’s RP-7i robot (limited to the healthcare market), and the Texas Robot from Willow Garage (prototypes, but now test-drivable). The company also faces competition from commercial videoconferencing solutions, as well as every $300 netbook running Skype.

In many ways, mobile telepresence systems such as QA and QB are a typical case of technology in search of an application. This could change once the social advantages of robot telepresence are better understood, but perhaps more immediately, when the business benefits of mobile telepresence systems are described in detail and the costs savings fully quantified.