IRobot Grand Opening Pretty Grand
Updated with photos from the event: I missed all the speeches, sorry about that. But I still had a great time yesterday afternoon at the grand opening of iRobot’s new headquarters—touring the offices, with its multiple coffee stations and places for employees to hang bikes, examining the Seaglider underwater vehicle, watching a demo of the ConnectR Internet-controlled “virtual visiting robot,” and talking to two of iRobot’s founders, chairman Helen Greiner and CEO Colin Angle, among various other guests and employees.
The offices occupy a prime corner of a Bedford, MA, office park just off Route 3, a location that’s a bit farther out and a lot less congested than that of iRobot’s previous HQ in Burlington, near the mall. The new space features wide aisles (for robots to drive through?), a bunch of testing rooms, and lots of room to grow. But for visitors the most interesting parts, not surprisingly, are the small robot museum just off the main entrance—behind glass doors labeled “Cool Stuff”—and the two adjacent demo rooms—one for military robots and one for consumer devices.
In the military demo room, I met the famous Tom Frost. I say famous because we at Xconomy wrote about Frost all through iRobot’s legal battles with Robotic FX this fall. Frost was the program manager for the PackBot, the military robot Robotic FX ultimately conceded it had knocked off. Frost has moved on to become program manager of Seaglider, which is the undersea vehicle iRobot recently licensed from the University of Washington. (Greg explored the strategy behind that deal.)
The Seaglider basically flies in the water, Frost explained, praising its “really, really elegant” design. With no moving parts, the person-sized device simply rides currents and changes its buoyancy to travel up and down. As Greg explained, “It can travel distances of several thousand kilometers—going out to sea for six or seven months at a time—diving to depths of up to 1 kilometer.” Frost said the vehicle surfaces periodically and points its tail end up, so that an antenna can transmit data collected from its sensors or receive mission updates from Iridium satellites.
Frost says right now about 70 Seagliders are out in the field. Most are used by oceanographers for research on things like sea salinity or algae concentration, but a few are with the U.S. Navy, which iRobot sees as a big customer going forward. A bright pink Seaglider was perched before us, and Frost almost winced at the color as he explained that the University of Washington chose the hue so that the robot would be easy to spot in the water. As for iRobot’s commercial version: “I can guarantee you it’s not going to be pink,” Frost said. “I don’t think pink is the right color for this market.” Frost says the company plans to get Seaglider—perhaps in a nice bright yellow—to market “right quick.”
Next, I walked into the consumer demo room, which featured a kitchen and a living area that was arguably nicer than my own, for a demo of the ConnectR, which was announced last fall at the Digital Life expo in New York. This robot, now in beta testing, is based on the Roomba 400 but comes equipped with WiFi, microphone, speakers, and video cameras, thereby allowing two-way voice and video conversations with people from remote locations. You can drive it around via the Internet, enabling you to stay in touch with kids, watch pets, and perhaps elderly parents. Colin Angle said the company had been looking for a couple hundred beta testers and more than 10,000 people volunteered. The company had launched a much bigger, kludgier version of the ConnectR back in 2000 or so. But he and Greiner explained it had not gone far: among other things, the robot had been priced too high and the Internet was much less evolved than it is now.
This time around, they have high hopes. Angle explained that rather than a broad-based advertising strategy, the company would target different markets—pet care, for instance, or staying in touch with families—with specific messages tailored to those markets. He said there might be different colors for the robots serving each market, blue for kids and families, orange for pets, perhaps. Angle said the company had not yet set a price, but that it would be “under $800.” He also would not be pinned down on a release date—even when I guessed the holidays—but he did say the robot would not have a “material impact” on iRobot’s bottom line in 2008. Look for the ConnectR to be a bigger deal for 2009, however.
Greiner and I walked down the showcase aisle, which is flanked by devices from various points in iRobot’s history. One that seemed to hold a special place in Greiner’s heart was the 1995-era ROAMS. “This is the robot I brought to the original Special Forces demonstration,” she told me. That event, she said, led to some great feedback: the robot didn’t climb stairs, it couldn’t get up if fell over, it needed to be able to carry extra payloads. Greiner incorporated what she learned into a white paper that led directly to the PackBot tactical mobile robot, the foundation of iRobot’s military business.