Send Your Robot To Work Day

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Uncoupling your physical presence from your office and working remotely is no longer a pipe dream; increasingly high numbers of knowledge workers are doing it everyday.  For over a decade now, technology has allowed off site workers to access e-mail, chat via instant messaging, and attend online meetings from anywhere with an Internet connection.

But what about keeping tabs on what is happening on the factory floor, or popping into the ad hoc meetings that take place in a co-worker’s office?  For that, you need your own telepresence robot, and unfortunately they tend to be very expensive.

Your basic telepresence robot comes with a basic set of features that includes a camera, display screen, microphone, and speakers.  Prices vary widely.  The QB telepresence robot from Anybots runs $15,000 and features automatic obstacle avoidance.  A cheaper model from Vgo costs $6,000, and you can even make an appointment and test drive one in their office via their Web site.  In the pipeline, iRobot, the maker of the Roomba robot vacuum cleaners and the military PackBot, is working on Ava, a robot that uses an Android tablet as its head and brains.  For users who need to be able to move around an office or factory floor and visually see what is going on and interact with people. For users with disabilities, which prevent them from going to work or moving about the office once there, robotic telepresence may be appealing and very useful.

Not all solutions are expensive however.  This past weekend I attended Maker Faire NYC.  For the uninitiated, Maker Faire is an event sponsored by Make Magazine (a Do-It-Yourself magazine) to “celebrate arts, crafts, engineering, science projects and the DIY mindset.”  The event is a sort of high school science fair on steroids; it features exhibits, speakers, demonstrations, workshops, and showcases for new and emerging technologies.

One project presented at the event was a DIY telepresence robot dubbed MAYA (Me And You Everywhere).  Designed and built by Ben Hylak, a 14 year old student, the robot uses a Roomba as its platform and an Acer Aspire netbook running RoboRealm software for control.  Two-way audio and video communication is enabled via Skype and built-in speakers and a Webcam.  The body of the robot is an upside-down plastic trashcan (which looks surprisingly good), with a 15” LCD display mounted on top.  The robot also features object recognition that Ben programmed to identify different kinds of pills (he envisions healthcare applications), and an articulated arm with a gripping device.

The cost of Ben’s MAYA robot?  Under $500, and he is selling the kits that would allow you to make one at home if you are feeling handy and want a weekend project.  Just think, you could send your new robot to work in your stead next week.

I don’t necessarily expect any executives to take the cheap route and place bulk orders for a DIY telepresence robot made from a vacuum cleaner and a plastic trashcan.  However, as demonstrated by this motivated and obviously intelligent 14 year old, the tools for implementing robotic telepresence at a reasonable price point are out there.  Expect to see more of these kinds of robots in the near future, and don’t be surprised when you run into one at the water cooler.


Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.  He can be reached at

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