I, Robot: Life With a Remote-Presence Robot
"Would you like to borrow a robot for a week?" Would I like to borrow a robot for a week? There's only one sane answer to that question: Of course I would. When can I get it?
The robot I was being offered was a beta unit of QB, the product of a Silicon Valley startup named Anybots. It's a bot built with one purpose in mind: Letting remote workers such as telecommuters or folks in branch offices interact with colleagues at headquarters.
QB is essentially a remote-control Webcam on wheels--using a browser-based app, the absent employee can steer the robot around the office, see other employees, and talk to them. More puppet than independent thinker, it's not even as autonomous as a mere Roomba. Nor does it have any way of picking up or otherwise manipulating objects, although a built-in laser pointer lets it direct coworkers' attention in a particular direction.
Anybots says QB will hit the market this Fall, at a price of $15,000--not cheap, but neither are more conventional corporate videoconferencing systems. It has competition in the form of VGo (also due to ship soon) and Willow Garage's Texai (still a research project rather than a commercial product). And even though the idea feels a tad Jetsonian, I didn't need convincing that there was a legitimate problem here waiting to be solved.
From late 1994 until mid-2002, I worked for San Francisco-based PCWorld from the publication’s small Boston office. It was a great gig in many ways, but collaborating with people on the other side of the country was an ongoing hassle. I attended meetings by listening in via a speakerphone that picked up maybe 60 percent of what my colleagues were saying, and since I couldn't see anyone I often didn't have a clue what was going on. When other staffers weren't in their offices--or just chose not to pick up the phone--it was usually impossible to figure out where they were.
I eventually resolved matters by moving to the Bay Area, but if QB had been available at the time I would have loved to give it a whirl. As editor of Technologizer, I don't have an office or fellow employees. So when I learned I could borrow a QB, I pinged Mark Sullivan, senior associate editor at PCWorld, with a proposition that he quickly accepted: What if QB served as my robotic doppelgänger in PCW's editorial department? It would be as close to a real-world test as possible, since I knew the people and the floor plan, and could use the bot to sit in on meetings and hang out with staffers at their desks and in the hallways.
The time we spent with QB wasn't free of technical glitches (it was, after all, a beta version) or strange moments, but it was enough to leave me thinking that remote-presence robots aren't just an example of wacky, misguided futurism. And before the week was over, I'd bonded with the bot to a surprising degree. Herewith, a journal of our adventures together.
On the previous Friday, Anybots employees had visited PCWorld, checked out the office's Wi-Fi--which QB uses to receive commands and stream audio and video--and set the robot up. But when I try to reach the bot via my browser on Monday morning, it's unresponsive. Mark notices that QB's battery is nearly drained, even though it's supposedly been charging all weekend.
After a bit of troubleshooting, an Anybots technician concludes that the bot may have power troubles and decides to swap it out for another unit. Robot joy delayed by one day.
The replacement QB seems to be in good working order. I don a headset and use Firefox on my MacBook to roll him to and fro and chat with Mark. I can see and hear Mark; he can hear me. (The video streaming is one-way at the moment, but the bot has an LCD in its forehead--Anybots plans to use that screen to display video or a still image of the remote worker.)
Mark's cubicle will serve as QB's base camp during its PCWorld visit. When not in use, the bot perches on a small platform--a little larger than a bathroom scale--that replenishes its battery. According to Anybots, it can run for around 6 to 8 hours on a charge.
QB may be a glorified mobile Webcam, but it’s impossible not to anthropomorphize him. (The Anybots Web site refers to the bot as "it," but almost everyone at PCWorld tends to refer to QB as male. From here on, we'll use the masculine pronouns.) With his wide noggin, round eyes, and vaguely E.T.-like appearance, he reminds of me of several noted fictional bots, including Pixar’s Wall-E, Number Five (from Short Circuit), and RX-24 (the pilot in Disneyland’s Star Tours ride).
The camera built into one of QB's eyes provides decent video, except in some instances when someone is directly in front of a window; in those cases, backlighting often leaves the person silhouetted and sometimes unrecognizable. Audio quality is very good in both directions. And everything happens without lag time, which is essential not only to enable unstilted conversation but also to ensure that you don't steer QB into walls or over coworkers' toes.
When I tell people I'm spending a week remote-controlling a robot, they assume I'm doing so with some specialized device--perhaps an industrial-strength joystick. Nope. Anybots' browser plug-in lets you do the job with your computer's arrow keys. It works remarkably well, in part because QB can sense how far he is from walls, objects, and people, and subtly corrects your input to prevent collisions. Holding down the key lets him look down--handy for avoiding potted plants, file cabinets, and other squat obstacles.
During my first joyride, QB cruises by a row of cubicles occupied by staffers of PCWorld’s sister publication Macworld. "The robot creeps me out," one editor comments acidly to another. Apparently she's already seen him.
It's hard not to take that personally. "I am not creepy," I shoot back.
"Yes, you are."
I whir back to the safer haven of PCWorld. Later, Macworld Editorial Director Jason Snell tells me that nobody had explained why a robot was roaming the sixth-floor PCWorld/Macworld offices, or made clear that it was being controlled by a human being.
I've been invited to sit in on a meeting about PCWorld's mobile strategy, with representatives from several departments. It'll be held in a conference room one floor down, so I know I'll need human help: QB can't do stairs, push elevator buttons, or turn door handles. Kim Brinson, PCWorld's managing editor, agrees to escort him down.
(Anybots, incidentally, envisions that businesses that span multiple floors will buy enough QBs to place one on each level, and that each QB will be used by multiple remote workers at different times.)
As I chitchat with Kim and a couple of other editors before heading to the meeting, I notice that the bot has developed an unseemly tic: He keeps creeping towards the folks I'm talking to, to the point that he's really in their face. "QB," Kim notes, "is invading his coworkers' personal space." (It happens only sporadically, and Anybots CEO Trevor Blackwell later tells me it's a bug.)
Accompanied by Kim, QB glides towards the sixth-floor lobby. But when he's nearly at the elevator bank, the video feed goes all blocky. Then it disappears. My browser tells me that QB is offline; I feel like a NASA technician who's lost contact with an exploratory probe.
A few minutes later, Kim calls me from the conference room. QB had suddenly stopped responding, so she had carried him the rest of the way. I ask her to reboot the bot, and when she does, I'm able to reconnect and join the meeting in progress.
I spend most of my time listening to the other participants, and it all feels rather normal, except for the fact that the paperwork they're examining is impossible to read from a bot's-eye view. (In retrospect, I should have asked for someone to e-mail me a PDF.) Oh, and everyone cracks up whenever QB turns attentively toward whoever's talking at the time.
When I ask Anybots why QB went incommunicado in the lobby, I'm told that a weak Wi-Fi signal in that area is to blame. The robot has two antennae to improve reception in iffy environments, but only one is working in the test unit. And once QB loses his Wi-Fi, a bug prevents QB from reconnecting without being turned off and then on again.