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

9/24/10Follow @wroush

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the tilt of the QB robot about 1,000 times each second and apply a small amount of torque to the motors to keep the robot upright and balanced on its two wheels. (When you’re standing face-to-face with a QB, you can see it swaying back and forth a bit, which is actually endearing—humans don’t stand still when you’re talking to them, either.)

Anybots is one of about five companies working on robots with telepresence capabilities, the others being Santa Barbara, CA-based InTouch Health, Santa Monica, CA-based RoboDynamics, Nashua, NH-based Vgo Communications, and Menlo Park, CA-based Willow Garage. (IRobot in Bedford, MA, experimented in 2007-2008 with a “virtual visiting” robot called ConnectR, but never brought it to market.)

Blackwell says QB stands out in this crowd because it’s one of the most general-purpose of the roving robots. “The sales pitch is that if you put a robot somewhere, you can log into it from our website from any computer, and then you’ve got two-way audio, two-way video, and mobility. So it’s like walking into the front door of a building. You’re there, you see what’s going on, you can go look at things, go talk to people. You can pretty much do anything you would normally do except use your hands.”

Blackwell thinks the first production run of 100 QB robots—some of which are already spoken for—will be bought by early adopters and by companies with travel budgets big enough to make QB’s $15,000 price tag look affordable. “If someone is going to be saving a few trips, it pays for itself very quickly,” Blackwell says.

And over time, Anybots will work to redesign QB to make it cheaper to manufacture. “I think we will open up many more markets when we can bring it down to a consumer price point,” he says. “It will be a different model, with a different capability set than the ‘professional’ version, but I’d like to see it come down to $1,000. But it’s not going to be next year.”

Unlike many robot companies, such as iRobot, Anybots doesn’t do any defense-related work. Blackwell says that’s allowed the company to be much more transparent about its development process, and to attract a different breed of roboticists as employees. “Nothing against military robots, but a lot of people can’t get motivated to work on that,” he says. “The fact that we’re not doing any defense work also allows us to be more open than most [robotics] companies. We like that, because it’s fun to show off to all of our friends what we’re working on, and we get better feedback.”

Indeed, at the two Y Combinator events I attended this summer, QB robots were working the crowd. “I’m sure all 200 Y Combinator company founders have played with our robots at various times,” Blackwell says.

Do the Anybots engineers believe enough in telepresence robots to eat their own dogfood? You bet. “Three of the seven of us work from home at least half time, including me,” Blackwell says. In fact, he arrived a bit late for our interview, but said in his own defense that he’d already spent an hour “in the office” that morning via telepresence.

I asked Blackwell whether the day might eventually come when no humans at all show up at the Anybots office and everyone simply logs in remotely, with robots talking to other robots. “We’ve already done it,” he answered. “I think, especially in business, this will be ubiquitous, the way laser printers or other communications technologies are, so that anyone who is not in the office can still effectively be in the office. That’s what I’m excited about.”

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

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