It may look like a floor lamp mounted on a vacuum cleaner, but Anybots, Inc.'s new QB is actually the latest in surrogate robotics. QB is designed to serve as your eyes, ears and voice when you can't be there in person. Even better, it's mobile, rolls around on two wheels like Rosie (from The Jetsons) and can be navigated remotely via the Web and a Wi-Fi connection.
Telecommuting workers and traveling executives alike could use QB (so named because it is the next in line after the company's prototype QA bot) as a virtual extension of themselves, allowing them to attend meetings, tour facilities or perform walk-throughs of real estate properties, all while controlling the robot from a computer keyboard.
Anybots formally unveiled the remotely controlled robot on Tuesday and plans to start selling QBs by the end of the year. A five-megapixel video camera serves as one eye, while the other is a laser pointer. A speaker on the crown of QB's head gives it a mouthpiece, a touch-screen monitor on its forehead enables software maintenance and other input, and a ring of protective rubber around its head makes it look a bit like Olivia Newton-John circa 1981.
Along with the wheels, a self-balancing system and a motor with a top speed of five kilometers per hour make the bot mobile. The two-wheel—as opposed to a tricycle or quad—design makes it more maneuverable in tight spaces and helps keep its weight down to about 16 kilograms. The area between the QB's head and base consists of a length of telescoping plastic that can be adjusted to let the QB stand as tall as 175 centimeters or as short as 81 centimeters.
Although it's unclear if the capacity for remote operation will justify the QB's $15,000 price tag, Anybots believes its technology will appeal to a new generation of workers who expect to be in contact at all times and in all places. The QB is designed to enable this connectivity without sacrificing "presence," says Bob Christopher, president and chief operating officer of Anybots, based in Mountain View, Calif. Bandwidth speed and video quality continue to improve, but they can't replace being there, he adds.
A test-drive reveals valuable Wi-Fi lesson
To see how this might work in practice [see video below], Scientific American test-drove (from our editorial offices in New York) a QB located at Anybots's facility in California. Our mission was to drive across the building's lobby and ask a second QB (remotely controlled by an Anybots employee) where we could find Erin Rapacki, who does product development for the company, and then proceed to Erin's location. The session began with logging on to a Web site set up by Anybots and selecting the IP address of the QB we were to inhabit.
Once our robot "woke up" and connected to Anybots's local Wi-Fi network, we used the arrow keys on our keyboard to navigate the QB across the lobby. The controls take some getting used to, particularly because rugs and other materials on the floor may prevent the QB from traveling a completely straight line. We easily found the other QB but had difficulty aligning our camera so that we were staring directly into the other QB's camera. This wasn't necessary, however, because we could hear the person controlling the other QB loud and clear through the microphone on our robot. Using the arrow keys, we were able to swivel our QB to the left and follow the relatively basic directions we had been given to our destination.
With a bit more practice, navigation would have been smoother. The QB features a built-in lidar (light detection and ranging) system that warns the robot when it is getting too close to an object and slows the robot down to avoid (or at least reduce the impact of) a collision. The QB also has a camera located on the bottom of its "chin" that points down at its wheels so you can see whether you're about to drive over a lower obstacle (such as someone's foot).
The QB's laser-pointer eye turned out to be useful when greeting people we encountered, including Anybots founder and CEO Trevor Blackwell, who accepted a laser beam in the palm of his hand in lieu of a handshake (a relief, since the QB has no hands).
By the time we were ready to leave, we were able to drive our QB back to the Anybots lobby and out the front door. Just past the building's threshold, we learned a valuable lesson in surrogate navigation: never drive outside the range of your Wi-Fi network. A dropped connection means no cameras and no control over the robot's navigation, which was especially unfortunate in our case because we were approaching the top of a ramp down to the parking lot when we lost the signal.