Anybots, Y Combinator’s Housemate, Brings Remote-Controlled Robots to the White-Collar World

9/24/10Follow @wroush

[Video included, please scroll down] Trevor Blackwell used to think that telepresence robots were all about manipulation: being able to grasp and move things from afar. So he and his colleagues at Mountain View, CA-based Anybots spent years building robots with beautifully articulated hands that users could operate over a standard Internet connection. The company’s prototypes were so dexterous that they could make pizza, sort machine parts into bins, or even brew coffee in a French press.

But along the way, the Anybots team learned a lot about their robots. For one thing, the bots were a bit slow. “We could do a lot of things, but it typically took two or three times longer than if you were there in person,” Blackwell says. “You had to think about what you were doing, and you couldn’t move your fingers quite as quickly.” To some extent, that defeated the purpose of telepresence robots, which, loosely speaking, is to save users time by allowing them to get work done without having to travel to a remote location.

AnybotsAlso, the manipulator robots were difficult to build, and expensive. “We realized it was going to take a long time to get robot hands into volume production,” Blackwell says. “It was something we could build in the lab, but it was still many years away from being able to commercialize it.”

But about two years ago, as it turns out, Blackwell had an experience that inspired him to think about telepresence differently. “It was staring us in the face for years, and we didn’t see it until I ended up having an emergency,” he told me in an interview yesterday.

Blackwell had scheduled an important in-person meeting with some potential partners at Anybots’ headquarters. But a canceled flight left him stranded in a hotel in Canada, he says. So he logged in to Monty, a 150-pound wheeled prototype back in Mountain View, which sported not just arms and hands but cameras, microphones, and speakers. “I got the video working and went into the meeting. And it was really good. I remember [the meeting] as if I was there. It was a great experience, and I thought, ‘This is the thing we should be selling.’”

Blackwell was realizing, in other words, that telepresence was as much about vision and movement as it was about manipulation.

That was the summer of 2008. And this November, Blackwell’s eureka moment will start paying off, as the first 100 “QB” telepresence robots roll off Anybots’ production line. The $15,000 devices are intended for businesses where workers in widely separated offices can use them as a supplement—or even a replacement—for traditional video conferencing.

Already, tech companies have been using pre-production QB units as a way for remote bosses to practice “management by walking around,” to cite a strategy first popularized by Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard. “One of our favorite customers is a software company with about 50 developers, and 20 of them are in Russia,” Blackwell says. “So they use [QB] regularly to basically provide a door between those two offices, so that people can pop in and talk. The problem with video conferencing is that you generally have to arrange it in advance, book a conference room, and then everyone sits down and has a Meeting with a capital M. It’s very different from just being able to drop into someone’s cubicle and ask them an easy question.”

At this point, you’re probably thinking “Yeah, right. I’m supposed to have a real conversation with my boss/colleague/mom via robot?” Well, after conducting an entire interview yesterday with a person who was logged into a QB robot, I can report that the initial awkwardness goes away almost immediately, just as it does after your first couple of Skype video conversations. My guess is that the biggest barrier to widespread adoption of telepresence robots like QB will be cost, not ease of use.

I encourage you to pause here and watch the video blog post I shot at Anybots, then continue reading below. The six-minute sequence consists of an introduction by Blackwell, followed by a remote interview with Suzanne Brocato, Anybots’ “virtual receptionist.” The rest of this column delves into Anybots’ history and business model.

What’s interesting to me about Anybots is that the company’s seemingly drastic change of direction, from manipulator robots to teleconferencing robots, wasn’t actually a departure from Blackwell’s original vision. The way he describes it, that vision is all about … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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