Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Meet QB, Your New Robotic Coworker

It looks sort of like a Segway that’s developed anthropomorphic characteristics. It’s really a high-quality videoconferencing system on wheels. It’s called QB, and if startup Anybots is successful, it could be coming soon to the conference rooms, offices, and hallways of businesses everywhere.

QB is a “remote presence robot”–a remote-controllable puppet designed to be the eyes and ears of telecommuters, workers in branch offices, and others who collaborate with people in an office when they aren’t in the office. As with Willow Garage’s experimental Texai robots, a telecommuting worker can use QB as an in-office doppelganger, maneuvering it around to attend meetings, drop into the offices of colleagues, and otherwise interact in ways that go beyond what’s possible with ordinary videoconferencing equipment or speakerphones.

Anybots founder Trevor Blackwell told me that Anybots initially wanted to build a more elaborate, dexterous robot who was capable of picking up and manipulating objects. After experimenting, though, the company decided to keep it simple. QB has no arms or hands. Cameras in its eyes capture video; speakers and microphones let it relay sound back and forth; an LCD in its forehead can display a still image or video of the remote colleague; a laser pointer gives it the equivalent of a virtual finger to jab at things. And the wheels let it scurry around a workplace as long as stairs aren’t involved. (Blackwell says that he envisions companies with multiple floors keeping a QB on each level.)

Blackwell says that Anybots tried to make sure that QB wasn’t too cute and humanized, for fear that workers would start to identify it (him) as an individual with its own personality. Having seen a QB test unit in action, though, I know this: It’s adorable.

The bot gets six to eight hours of life on a charge according to Blackwell, and docks for recharging at night. It weighs thirty pounds, and its heads is on a manually-adjustable telescoping rod. (Scrunch it down, and you can buckle up QB in a car seat for easy transportation.)

You control QB in a Web-based application that shows you what it sees and lets you direct it around simply by pressing your computer’s arrow keys. That sounds crude and imprecise–a recipe for QB scraping doorways or accidentally head-butting its coworkers. But a built-in laser rangefinder helps compensate for sloppiness on your part and prevent QB from whacking into walls and humans. When Blackwell let me drive a QB a bit, I found that getting it to go where I wanted was surprisingly effortless. The video quality looked good, too. (Blackwell says that getting it to stream smoothly with almost no latency was trickier than building the bot.)

As someone who spent a lot of years in a small branch office, collaborating with coworkers who were mostly on the other side of the country, I’m fascinated by the idea of QB, and I think I could have found one useful. It’s the sociology, not the technology, that’s most fascinating–will workers adjust to the idea of one or more droids being part of everyday life at the office? We’ll start to find out this fall, when the first QBs are scheduled to ship. They’ll cost $15,000 apiece; that’s not peanuts, but as Blackwell points out, neither is the more mundane high-quality videoconferencing equipment which this robot might replace.

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