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

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letting people work from wherever they are, and erasing distance in some way other than hopping into a car or onto a plane.

“Nobody has really adequately explained why it is that we’ve got high-bandwidth fiber carrying video into most businesses, and yet people are still flying everywhere,” Blackwell comments. “The telecom network was supposed to fix that. It was supposed to mean that you could send bits rather than atoms. And yet business travel is not down; it’s as big as ever.”

Back in the dot-com days, Blackwell was part of the original team at Viaweb, a pioneer in Web storefront technology founded in 1995 by Paul Graham and Robert Morris. Yahoo bought the company in 1998, and Blackwell was part of the search portal’s e-commerce team until 2001. “I left Yahoo on a Friday and started Anybots Monday morning,” he says. “In retrospect I should have taken a couple of months off.” His colleague Graham went on to found the Y Combinator venture incubator, which now shares a small warehouse/office building with Anybots in a tree-lined, semi-industrial section of Mountain View.

“The idea from the beginning was that the network was going to completely change the way robotics was done,” Blackwell says. “Prior to 2000, basically all robotics work was assuming that everything had to be done on-board. Robots were always limited by processing power; you could only put so much CPU on a mobile robot. But then came the facts that Wi-Fi has enough bandwidth to stream video and all the control signals back and forth; that you can put massive amounts of processing power in the cloud; and that you can have people control the robots just as well as having software control the robots. I believe those three things are going to completely change robotics, and that’s what we are working on rolling out.”

The seven-employee startup learned a lot from its early experiments with hand-based robots, Blackwell says. “We learned how to make robots that were reliable and comfortable to be around. And we learned how to control any robot remotely…I guess the main difference from the founding vision, now, is that we realized that arms and hands aren’t the most important things. When we started out, we thought that being able to do things with your hands was going to be essential to having useful remote-control robots, But we realized that it was basically a lot easier to do white-collar work than blue-collar work.”

But Anybots’ first roving robot—Monty—wasn’t quite agile enough to navigate an office environment. “We built this enormous four-wheeled platform, kind of like a centaur,” Blackwell says. “It was inconvenient. It kept backing into things and crashing.” So the team switched to a two-wheeled design, which took advantage of another relatively recent technological advance: the solid-state gyroscope. The same device found inside a Segway transporter, these instruments measure … Next Page »

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

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