Business Hardware

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.

Anybot
Anybots QB
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.

Monday

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.

Tuesday

Bots
Clockwise from upper left: QB, Number 5, Wall-E, and RX-24
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).

Telepresence
I talk with Mark via the Anybots browser app.
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.

Wednesday

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.)

Remote meetings
QB attends a meeting
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.

Thursday

I decide to take QB out for a morning constitutional around PCWorld's offices, so I fire up my browser and connect to him via the Anybots Web app. The video feed flutters into place. I swing him around to greet Mark, and can hear him but can't see him. In fact, I can't tell what I'm looking at.

"You just fell over," Mark explains, as he helps QB to his um, feet.

I figure out what happened: QB’s neck isn’t articulated, so when I turned to look Mark's way I was really spinning the bot's wheels around. Which was a bad idea, because he was docked on his charging station. I should have wheeled him forward a few inches before I tried any fancy maneuvers.

Bot down
Anybot has fallen
That is the only time QB takes a tumble during our time with him, but it's apparently not a unique event. In fact, I notice that Anybots' browser app has a helpful "QB has fallen down" status icon.

I have a PCW staff meeting on my calendar, and am looking forward to attending it. But I learn that it had been rescheduled and was already held--and that nobody remembered to tell me. It's the sort of thing that used to happen to me all the time when I was a remote worker, and it's not an issue that QB helps with.

Late in the day, I send QB cruising around the editorial aisles and gab with the PCWorld editors I come across. Unlike the Macworlders, they don't treat him like a robotic intruder. In fact, they treat him pretty much like, well, me. The conversation isn't completely natural--for one thing, QB has very little peripheral vision, so I swoop him around frequently to look people in the eye as I chat. But it's unexpectedly close to the encounters I might have if I were there in flesh-and-blood form.

Ed Albro, PCWorld’s editor, spots QB and approaches. "Did you write about the new Kindle?" he asks. Um, new Kindle? I hadn't heard about it yet, but Engadget had just posted about an upgraded version of the Amazon e-reader. I thank Ed, return QB to Mark's cube, and rush to blog about the news. And I take the experience as a sign of QB's usefulness: Remote workers who can't participate in hallway conversations miss out on a lot of vital information.

Friday

QB at TechCrunch event
TechCrunch's QB with TechCrunch co-editor Erick Schonfeld. Photo (cc) Kenneth Yeung--snapfoc.us.
I spend the day at Stanford University, attending a conference hosted by technology-blog giant TechCrunch. I'm startled to discover that one of my fellow participants is QB.

Not, not my QB--TechCrunch honcho Michael Arrington has also borrowed one, and he's brought it to the event. Like me, he's apparently developed a symbiotic relationship with his bot: He's currently using it as his Twitter avatar.

I regret that my QB isn't there and have visions of what it would've been like if the robotic twins had met each other.

Seeing a QB out and about interacting with random strangers gives me an inspired idea. PCWorld's editorial staff meets every day with executives from tech companies who visit to show off new hardware, software, and services. Wouldn't it be neat if QB attended one of those meetings? Wouldn't it help us learn about how unprepared outsiders react to a robot?

I dash an e-mail off to Mark proposing that we try it. When he responds, he's politely skeptical: "Gee I don't know, it might freak some people out a little." I decide not to press the point. Later, Mark tells me that he had asked a staffer from another department if QB could attend one meeting and been shot down on the grounds that transmitting video and audio from a confidential meeting to a remote location outside of PCW's firewall presented a security risk.

Lesson learned: Even once a company owns a QB, it might be a while before everybody's comfortable with it in every situation.

Monday

Our time with QB is winding down, but today's a big day: I'm going to attend a meeting with a bunch of PCW staffers to discuss the project. It's being held in the office of Editorial Director Steve Fox, just a few yards from Mark's cube, so I'm not worried about getting there.

I steer QB into a spot near the conference table. Someone remarks that the bot looks like he's standing up even though everyone else is seated. The bot's telescoping neck is positioned so he's about five feet tall, and there's no way to move it remotely. Senior Video Producer Chris Manners lowers it so QB is no longer peering down on other attendees.

Except for a few brief blips in the video feed, the meeting goes great--it's a major improvement on the speakerphone I'd otherwise have been forced to use. I'm at ease; more important, so is everyone in Steve's office. It's the closest we've come to experiencing what using QB would be like once most of the novelty had worn off and he was just a handy piece of office equipment.

I skitter out of the meeting towards Mark's cube. And then I realize that it looks like everything and everyone grew a foot or two while I was in conference--QB's neck is still in the lowered position. I ask Chris to ratchet it back up. When an Anybots representative pings me to arrange for QB's return, I'm sorry to see the little guy go. (Actually, I finagle a couple of extra days with him.) As I said, I'm convinced that the company is on to something. But my robotic encounter has taught me several lessons:

  • QB craves acceptance. Using it as a remote employee is a pretty intuitive experience--it's the people back at headquarters who might find having a robot around the office jarring. And workers who don't like QB might refuse to deal with it, period. (A little over a week with QB wasn't long enough for everyone at PCW to buy into the concept.)
  • QB needs a buddy. Given its dependence on battery power and wireless networking, it's not entirely self-sufficient. If my company bought a QB, I'd make sure that someone in the office was responsible for checking in on it periodically and rescuing it when necessary.
  • QB is either pricey or a bargain. Everyone I told about the robot asked how much it cost and was startled by the $15,000 price tag. If the bot turns out to be a little-used toy, it would be an expensive mistake. But if multiple remote employees call on QB a lot to work more efficiently--and maybe even skip trips they'd otherwise make to the home office--I could see it paying for itself via higher productivity and lower travel costs.
  • QB is a first-generation gadget. Some of the technical challenges we faced were due to features that were still in the works or bugs that were yet to be squashed. But even the shipping version is likely to appeal primarily to companies that are fearless about trying out bleeding-edge technology. With any luck, remote presence robotics will be useful enough that we'll see refined future generations of QB and his rivals.

I'm not saying I envision a full-blown robotic invasion of America's workplaces any time soon. But it'll kind of cool if the day comes when a robot can glide into a meeting--and absolutely nobody in the room thinks it's anything but another day at the office.

(Thanks to everyone at PCWorld for participating in this experiment--especially to Mark Sullivan for hosting QB and to PCWorld Senior Video Producer Chris Manners for the videos.)

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