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.
iRobot Ava 500 Telepresence Robot Could Save Time, Cut Travel Costs
He said that the executive was able to work naturally in board rooms and lead a break-out session just as if he were there in person.
Saleh said that he furtively looked around for speaker phone in case something went wrong with the robot, but as it happened, nothing did. “They really didn’t need to make any preparations at all” for the robot, he noted.
The lack of any need to prepare for the use of the Ava 500 is an important feature. After all, there are plenty of ways to hold a video conference, ranging from dedicated remote presence rooms to Skype on your phone.
But using those capabilities can have serious limitations. A room with telepresence may not be available when you need to hold a meeting. Skype depends on someone letting you call in to their phone and even then you have no control over what you see or when you can talk or to whom.
Perhaps equally important, a device such as the Ava means that you don’t need to restrict your meetings to rooms with video or people with a phone that you can dial into. You can travel via the robot to anything from labs to manufacturing facilities to training sessions. The person controlling the robot controls where they go.
Also important is that the Ava 500 leverages iRobot’s eerily accurate ability to explore and memorize a space. When you first get your Ava 500, it goes exploring to learn the physical layout of the office or other space where it’s working. Someone will need to download office locations and their occupants, but after that, the robot can function autonomously. It’ll avoid people, obstacles and things like walls, so there won’t be any collisions like what I saw at the computer museum a year ago.
There are things that the Ava 500 can’t do. The device doesn’t have the ability to manipulate objects, for example. “We didn’t want it to be too creepy,” Saleh explained. While you can look wherever you wish, and you can listen, you can’t touch, smell or sense anything other than through sight and sound. This also means you can’t go to lunch with colleagues.
So will something like this save busy executives time because they don’t have to travel to remote meetings? I think, for many purposes, it can. The high-quality audio and video are good enough to get visual and audio cues. For most routine meetings, being there remotely might not be a disadvantage at all and it would certainly cut down unproductive and costly travel. But there are limits to what you can do remotely, at least until the robot can catch a cab and go to another building.