Meet QB. This skinny alien-looking robot may soon replace you at work.
But don’t worry. It doesn’t want your job. QB is a robotic stand-in for workers. You control it remotely as a videoconference system on wheels. Embodied as a QB, you can attend meetings, drop by a coworker’s office, even confab at the water cooler.
You can control your robotic self from anywhere using a computer connected to the Net. It’s a bit like the recent Bruce Willis movie Surrogates. Except QB is less, uh, muscular.
"We wanted to create a technology that allows remote workers to collaborate more fully -- and feel part of the team," founder and CEO Trevor Blackwell told me when we spoke a few weeks ago.
What they created is a sophisticated mobile robot. Its base houses a compact computer, two Wi-Fi interfaces, a LIDAR-based collision-detection system, powerful motors, and a lithium-ion battery pack that lasts 8 hours, or enough for a full day of work.
The head has a 5-megapixel video camera pointing forward, a lower resolution camera pointing down at an angle to help with driving, three microphone and high-quality speakers, and -- my favorite feature -- a laser pointer that shoots green light from one of its eyes.
The 16-kilogram robot [35 pounds] rolls on two wheels using a custom self-balancing system, an approach that Blackwell says is more power-efficient, lets the robot drive over bumps, and has proved quite stable. QB can rotate around its vertical axis, easily take turns, and drive at 5.6 kilometers per hour [3.5 mph].
Anybots says "robocommuting" could not only improve collaboration but also save companies' time and money. Employees can work from home or other locations and reduce commute and travel.
But the question I -- and I guess many other people -- might ask themselves is, Why do you need a robot if you have pretty decent videoconference systems? Cisco Systems, the leader in this area, even uses the term "telepresence" for its products (Jack Bauer is a major "customer," by the way.)
"Videoconference is confined to structured environments like conference rooms," says Bob Christopher, Anybots' COO. "We want people to talk and interact in non-structured environments, anywhere."
"With QB," he adds, "you can continue talking to your colleagues after you left the conference room."
To use QB you don’t need to add any extra hardware to the office -- all it needs is a Wi-Fi network. The robot connects to it like any computer and sends and receives video and commands over the Net.
Controlling the robot requires only a Firefox browser and a plug-in from Anybots. You log in and instantly start seeing and hearing what the robot is seeing and hearing.
It’s not Star Trek teleportation, but "incarnating" a robotic body is quite an experience.
I had a chance to try it and will report on my tests in an upcoming feature article in IEEE Spectrum and here on this blog. In the mean time, let us know: Is robotic telepresence the future of work?
8 hours of battery life
5 megapixel video camera
Supports Wi-Fi 802.11g
3.5 mph normal cruise speed
Price: US $15,000
Availability: Fall 2010
Laser shoots from the right eye.
Docked on the recharging station.
Retracted neck, ready to travel.
Photos and video: Anybots
Erico Guizzo is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. He has written stories on a wide range of science and technology topics, including Japanese androids, French computer codes, Icelandic video games, American crash-test dummies, and Canadian bacteria. His main area of interest is robotics, and he has written and edited hundreds of articles and videos featuring the latest advances in this field. He is also the cocreator of Spectrum’s critically acclaimed Robots for iPad app. For his robotics coverage, Guizzo has won four Neal Awards and has been a finalist for two National Magazine Awards. An IEEE member, he holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of São Paulo, in his native Brazil, and a master’s in science writing from MIT.