The Knowledge Worker’s Next Must-Have Gadget: A Telepresence Robot

If robotics startups get it right, the next piece of hardware you expense to your company may be a telepresence robot, a pedestal-shaped machine that will let you scoot around a remote office to check in on colleagues.

Robots are already used in factories, warehouses, and to vacuum people’s floors, but they have yet to penetrate far into the halls and cubicles of corporate America. One of the big reasons is the price. Because telepresence robots have typically cost several thousand dollars, their makers have designed them for important people doing specialized jobs, such as a doctor diagnosing a stroke or the CEO visiting remote employees.

Now, companies are developing telepresence robots in the price range that the average white-collar worker could afford. Sunnyvale, CA-based Double Robotics has sold about 2,000 of its robot, which costs $2,500 without the required iPad. And Palo Alto, CA-based Suitable Technologies plans to release a new low-end version of its corporate telepresence robot for under $2,000.

When a robot costs as much as a laptop, departments within companies could even start buying telepresence robots without having to go through the CFO or CIO. Double Robotics CEO and co-founder David Cann thinks that sort of price point, almost on the level of an impulse purchase, will allow the millions of remote workers of the world better connect to their colleagues.

“We’re really going for the mass market of anybody who works from home,” says Cann, who co-founded the company with his college robotics buddy Marc DeVidts in 2011. “Our ultimate goal is that people will never have to move again—you can just live wherever you want and work wherever you want and separate those two.”

Double Robotics' robot uses an iPad to communicate.

Double Robotics’ robot uses an iPad to communicate.

Cann and DeVidts got the idea for a simple, low-cost telepresence robot while working on another product, a toy robot for kids. They looked into buying a telepresence robot to avoid long and costly trips to Asia to deal with manufacturers, but prices of existing products were steep and about the same price as taking a trip. They went through the Y Combinator startup accelerator in 2012 and released the company’s robot, called the Double, 15 months ago.

Roboticists often work on gnarly technical challenges at the cutting edge of computer science. But Double Robotics approached its product more like consumer electronics designers, focusing on software as much as hardware and incorporating as much off-the-shelf technology as possible. The “face” of the Double, which weighs only 15 pounds, is an iPad and it moves on wheels using a Segue-like balancing system. Double Robotics also kept costs low by using the same electronics already used in millions of smart phones, including a gyroscope sensor and Bluetooth connectivity.

“We don’t really want to invent new technology. We just want to make a great product experience from existing technology so that it can be low-cost and be accessible to everybody, not just specialized use cases,” says Cann, who is a former iOS developer.

The product is best suited for teams of workers where one or a few people are working remotely and they want to communicate in a different way than videoconferencing, chats, or phone calls. By having a robot that can move around the office, remote people can benefit from the informal discussions that happen after meetings or in break rooms, Cann says. The company is also exploring other applications, such as virtual tourism or remotely attending conferences.

Talk to the ‘Bot

But do mobile robots add anything beyond what videoconferences already provide? Early users of telepresence say there’s something there but some kinks still need to be worked out.

Mimecast chief scientist Nathaniel Borenstein purchased a Double to check in on colleagues in other offices, but he found the robot was a distraction in an open plan office. Remote workers couldn’t catch his eye when he rolled up to indicate they wanted to talk to him, he says. It’s also difficult to have a private conversation between a person and the robot, which uses the iPads speakers, he says.

On the other hand, Borenstein has found the robot excels at virtually attending conferences. He and a colleague in London take turns … Next Page »

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