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 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 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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