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 attending a technical conference in different locations with a Double. That allows one of them to stay home and listen to talks and participate in meetings. The robot isn’t autonomous, though; it needs to be directed to where different sessions are, and it needs a handler to operate an elevator and get back to the hotel at the end of the day.

The mobility of the Double has also been useful in a reception for a group of customers, Borenstein says. “Just the ability to turn. I can turn and show which customer I’m paying attention to at a given moment and I can wander around the room and find customers who look like they need talking to,” he says.

Borenstein was able to give the Double a try because the cost was low enough to start experimenting with telepresence robots. Until recently, though, telepresence robots have been much more expensive.

Before developing its low-end robot, Suitable Technologies’ BeamPro costs a bit less than $17,000. The VGo robot is priced at about $7,000 a year. Santa Clara, CA-based Anybots, which has a telepresence robot that uses a small screen and two eye-like cameras, sells its device for $9,700.

Meanwhile, at the higher end is iRobot, which makes military robots and the Roomba vacuum cleaner. Earlier this year, it released the Ava 500 telepresence robot, which has a list price of $69,500. A telepresence robot developed for telemedicine with InTouch Health, called the RP-Vita, costs between $4,000 and $6,000 a month for the robot and accompanying service.

iRobot's first telepresence robot was designed for telemedicine.

iRobot’s first telepresence robot was designed for telemedicine.

These iRobot robots were designed specifically to provide telepresence features to Fortune 500 companies, not an individual software programmer in Minnesota, the company says. The robot can automatically build a map of an office, which means a person can reserve a robot and tell it where to go without having to remotely drive it through hallways. The video and audio of the Ava 500 robot, which was developed with Cisco, is high quality and it integrates with enterprise security and data encryption systems, says Yusef Saleh, the general manager of iRobot’s remote presence business unit.

IRobot has started selling both robots to large companies and, although it’s still early days, Sahel believes the market for telepresence robots will grow to billions of dollars. “We believe companies will deploy large numbers because it changes the way they operate,” he says. For example, an expert can visually inspect a factory floor or lab and, since telepresence robots can move through an office, remote people can have more spontaneous interactions than scheduled meetings.

It makes sense that there will be a wide range of features and prices in telepresence robots, just as there is in videoconferencing—everything from free Skype chats to high-quality corporate systems. In that way, telepresence robots are following a typical technology adoption curve, where products are first sold to big corporations and eventually become items that individuals can afford.

But the barriers to adoption for telepresence robots aren’t just technical and economic. In the case of robots, there are some cultural challenges as well. For telepresence to be productive, people need to feel comfortable with robots wheeling around offices. Also, people still need to figure out those situations where they are actually useful and not just a novelty.

Mimecast’s Borenstein thinks the list of items that telepresence robots are good at will grow over time. “The technology has gotten to the point that it’s affordable for most businesses,” he says. “But they’re all first-generation. In five years, they’ll all look hopelessly primitive.”

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