iRobot Ava 500 Telepresence Robot Could Save Time, Cut Travel Costs

NEWS ANALYSIS: New meeting robot could cut travel costs, eliminate time wasted getting to meetings and help integrate dispersed staff members, but it can't do everything.

The first time I actually had to interact with a meeting robot was at a cocktail reception at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.

I was sipping a glass of red wine and talking with Ethernet pioneer Bob Metcalfe at the Ethernet 40th Anniversary event in May 2013 when a robot bearing a screen with the image of a young woman glided up next to me. I was a little startled, but she seemed to fit into the conversation quickly, asked Metcalfe a couple of questions and then glided away, bumping into a chair on the way out.

What interested me afterward wasn't so much that the device was navigating a little erratically, but rather how easily this robot woman fit in. Within minutes, she was part of the conversational circle and interacted just as if she'd been there in person.

While it wasn't the perfect virtual experience, it worked well enough. Now, with the announcement of the Ava 500 Telepresence Robot, it would be an even more seamless experience.

What's happened is that iRobot has linked its experience with autonomous robots with Cisco's telepresence videoconference system, making a robot that can find its way around an office on its own, and interact with others as if the person who is using it were actually there. In a sense, that's because they actually are there.

According to Youssef Saleh, iRobot's senior vice president and general manager for iRobot's remote presence business unit, using the Ava 500 is actually a lot more like being there than you'd expect. The robot, which looks like a monitor screen on a thick pedestal, is human in scale; it can adjust to sitting and standing heights; and it can move around in an office or other space just as a person would. Because it's human in scale and bears the high-definition image of the person using it, Saleh said that people react to it as they would to another person.

When Saleh described using it, he used terms like "I walked over," or "I grabbed him for a quick conversation in the hall." While I haven't actually tried it (although I'm working on that), it seems that the interaction with the Ava 500 naturally integrates with how you might interact with a living person standing in front of you. In meetings, people apparently react the same way. The only thing you're missing by attending a meeting with the robot is the stale Danish and the bad coffee.

As I talked with him, Saleh described a situation in which one of iRobot's executives used an Ava 500 to attend a meeting when he found suddenly that he couldn't attend in person.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...