Instead of travelling, CEOs and business leaders could pilot a remote robot body and be in two places at once. Entrepreneur, tinkerer and unicyclist extraordinaire Trevor Blackwell, BEng/92, says his telepresent robots could revolutionize the way people communicate and do business
By Tim Hornyak
You’re in yet another long business meeting: this time it’s a conference call with a group of colleagues overseas. After plenty of discussion and action items, it’s finally time for a break. Your office mates move into the hallway to relax, chat and grab coffee—only something’s different. This time the overseas colleagues join you—not in spirit, but in slender metal-plastic bodies on wheels. They’re physically present in a pair of machines that can move and interact with everyone around them. They’re telepresent robots.
Earlier this year in Nevada, a man in a porkpie hat strolled down Las Vegas Boulevard with a trio of robots in tow. The two-wheeled, pole-neck droids had big eyes and white bubble heads with protective headbands that stuck out a little like a fedora’s brim, a visual echo of the man striding confidently before them—their maker, Trevor Blackwell, BEng/92.
Blackwell, 41, was on his way to the Consumer Electronics Show, the world’s largest exhibition of high-tech gadgets and geek tools. He was there to show off the fruits of 10 years of research and experimentation on a nagging question: how can robots be integrated into our daily lives? His answer, at least in part, is QB, a remotely operated, self-balancing machine that’s essentially a webcam on wheels. You can log into a QB from anywhere with an internet connection and be “telepresent” in your robot avatar, piloting it while you interact with people around it via audio and video links. Blackwell says QB users can avoid the cost and hassle of travel while interacting with friends and colleagues in a richer, more interactive fashion than phone calls or webcam chats allow.
Blackwell’s company, Anybots, has just started shipping QBs at about US$15,000 each. That’s a lot of dough for a kind of tool that most people have never heard of. The concept itself is novel, even eccentric. Who would want to drive around a robot that looks like a floor lamp and speak through it like a ventriloquist? Lots of high-achieving business execs, it turns out. There’s a large perceived need for skilled staff to be on-site somewhere several times a month, but not enough to justify a full-time transfer. Anybots isn’t the only telepresence company on the block: iRobot and VGo Communications are making inroads, but Anybots is one of the first to bring a product to market.
“This kind of robotics is at the edge of what’s possible,” says Blackwell in a large multi-purpose room in the Anybots office in Mountain View, Calif. “Our plan was to create a robot that was capable of doing things, and we knew that artificial intelligence software was going to be a long time before it could be very useful. We realized that to make robots do useful things, we would have to have people controlling them at least some of the time.”
Anybots is located on a leafy road shared with other high-tech companies. I walked through the door and immediately got a demonstration of Blackwell’s thinking. A QB robot rolled up to me in the lobby, and a woman’s voice said, “You must be Tim. Welcome to Anybots. I’m Suzanne.” The telepresent woman was Suzanne Brocato, an employee who robo-commutes to work every day and greets all visitors; she lives in Martinez, about 100 kilometres north of Mountain View, and goes to the office physically only once a month. Her photo was visible in a nine-centimetre screen in the QB’s forehead, a way to identify her. When required, she can stream video of herself to the robot so that people can see her facial expressions. I followed her into another room, echoing the old protocol of ladies first. The room was full of mechanical hands and prototype robots, including a humanoid bot reclining in the sun like a Club Med guest.
Blackwell was at his desk in the flesh, surrounded by work tables and tools, half-assembled robots and colleagues poring through code. Titles on the bookshelf ranged from mechanical engineering treatises to Gray’s Anatomy. A line of QBs stood along the wall, and every so often one left its docking station to roam the office on its wi-fi signal, driven by someone, somewhere.
A stripped-down QB design has two main features: the head for interaction, with its display and eyes housing a five-megapixel video camera, and the base for up to 5.6 kilometres per hour of mobility. QB has a laser pointer for indicating objects and a light-detection and ranging system to avoid obstacles within two metres. But even if it rolls over your foot, it won’t hurt too badly since it weighs only 16 kilograms. Its three microphones will focus on the loudest voice in a noisy room and convey the user’s voice through a speaker. While it currently runs on wireless internet, Blackwell has successfully used a 4G phone signal to pilot a QB to a Mountain View coffee shop, where it bought a scone for a staff member.
There are only about 10 employees at Anybots, and I keep thinking about Microsoft and Apple in their early days. Some technology forecasters say robots will become as common as cars later this century, and even though robots remain very intellectually challenged when it comes to comprehending the world, some forward thinkers now position them where the personal computer industry was in the early 1980s, before it exploded into the mainstream.
“When robots are possible, they’re going to be a much better solution for doing some tasks than having a person do it,” says Blackwell. “I’ve believed in the need for robots ever since I saw Star Wars as a kid.”
True enough. Blackwell grew up in Saskatoon and built his first robot, a rudimentary arm and gripper, in the fourth grade. He remembers spending hours programming his beloved Apple II computer gripper in his parents’ garage when the temperature outside was -20. He dreamed of living in Silicon Valley, the home of Apple, and programming became his passion. “I was in the computer club in high school and the chess club and the stereotype club,” he says with a laugh.
Following an electrical engineering degree at Carleton, Blackwell did a year at Nortel in research and development and went on to a PhD at Harvard. During his studies on high-speed networking, he joined a start-up in Cambridge, Mass., called Viaweb. With partners Paul Graham and Robert Morris, Blackwell created one of the first web-based applications—an e-commerce platform that allowed users to set up online stores with little programming expertise.
When Yahoo! acquired Viaweb in a US$49 million stock deal in 1998, Blackwell became a wealthy man and went on to co-found Y Combinator, a kind of meta-start-up that pairs fledgling companies with investors. Viaweb, meanwhile, became Yahoo Store and is still used by millions.
Blackwell returned to his childhood fascination with robots in 2001 when he founded Anybots, dedicated to making useful anthropomorphic machines for home, office and factory. While many U.S. robot companies like iRobot create military machines for the Department of Defense, Blackwell wanted nothing to do with weapons. “I estimated that half of the best robotics researchers either couldn’t get security clearances or preferred not to work on military projects,” he says. “By not taking military funding, we doubled the size of our talent pool.”
Blackwell teamed up with enthusiasts like Scott Wiley, an industrial designer, and, after six years of research, created Monty, a 90-kilogram, 5’7″ humanoid robot on two wheels that has arms and finely articulated fingers. Monty could do some impressive things, such as make coffee with a French press, clear a table and load a dishwasher, but it took about three times longer than a person. Monty’s hands suffered with the work. “Fingers take lots of abuse, but robot fingers, unlike human ones, can’t heal themselves,” says Blackwell. “We found that we would have to replace the coding for the hands every 100 hours of operation.”
Fallible fingers or not, Monty ended up pointing the way to the future of Anybots. The company was expecting a visit from an important client when Blackwell was stuck in Canada with an expired passport. He couldn’t make the meeting in person, but the Anybots crew decided to rig a telepresence link through him for Monty. “I’ve never been very happy being a face on a laptop just sitting on a table,” says Blackwell. “I logged into Monty, and from my hotel room in Vancouver, I was able to drive it around and host. You can’t really welcome people and host them and give them a proper reception if you’re on a webcam. I was really impressed by what was possible.”
Blackwell experimented with over 20 robot prototypes on the road to finalizing a telepresence platform. He knew that appearance and quality were paramount—no one wanted an avatar that looked like a toy. Design collaborator Wiley, who worked on hardware for the International Space Station, says Blackwell’s old-school engineering stubbornness was key in coming up with a marketable product. “In the robo realm, he is an absolute visionary, with a relentless drive toward a future where human-helping robots are accessible to everyone,” Wiley says. “He once made a bet with a co-worker. They agreed if Trevor won the bet, he could cut the other guy’s car in half. Naturally, I would have assumed the slice would be crosswise, but no, Trevor insisted it be cut lengthwise through the engine block.” Blackwell loves making bets on the future. In the name of “intellectual rigour,” he has publicized some wild predictions on his website, including this nugget from July 2002: “Robot butlers, capable of cooking, cleaning, and interacting in fairly natural ways, will become available by 2010 and common by 2020.”
Predictions or not, Blackwell’s garage-style inventing has continued. One weekend he built a self-balancing scooter that was inspired by the Segway but constructed for less than half the cost by using parts he bought online. He later improved his “Segwell” so that it could travel faster than the Segway i-Series and could be summoned and driven with a laptop. It worked smoothly on the road, but Blackwell received an expletive-laden comment about being “too lazy to walk.” It inspired him to invent a vehicle that pays lip service to muscle power—an electric unicycle. He has been an avid unicyclist since the age of 35, even travelling 100 kilometres in one day in the Santa Cruz Mountains, but wanted to put his own spin on it. Weighing less than 14 kilograms and with a top speed of nearly 20 kilometres per hour, his Eunicycle is a computer-controlled wheel that can self-balance but requires the rider to do some work as well—you lean forward to accelerate and twist your upper body to steer—but pedalling isn’t necessary. Blackwell spent $1,500 on off-the-shelf components, and he’s giving away the programming code on his website. Riding the Eunicycle gave him many bumps and scrapes, but it also taught him a lot about balance.
Telepresent robots are, after all, mobile computers. They’re also Blackwell’s biggest wager about the future. He won’t say who Anybots’ first customers will be but claims he is in talks with national-scale companies with thousands of locations and a limited pool of highly skilled workers. “Their biggest problem is that it’s hard to have all the necessary skills in every location. What avatar robots will let them do is have a central pool of people with a particular expertise that can deploy to any location for half an hour. Where it becomes essential is when you need a skill, but only 10 percent of the time.” Possible QB scenarios spun by Blackwell include credit-rating specialists who could “robot in” to a store to meet certain customers or having the robots give a factory tour to potential clients.
Other companies, such as Willow Garage of Menlo Park, Calif., are getting into the telepresence robotics field, but how long it will be before telepresent robots become common is anybody’s guess. “The thing that makes me concerned is the human interaction aspect, such as touch,” says Sanford Dickert, a New York product-marketing specialist who has worked with Willow Garage’s Texai avatars. How will robots bridge that element of the human-machine divide?
The great prognosticator won’t make specific predictions of how avatars will become popular, but he’s sure robots will play a much bigger part in our future. “I think the biggest lesson from history is that no one ever predicts what’s coming correctly. People thought the web browser was going to be for downloading research papers from universities. So I think we haven’t even thought of the huge application for robots yet.”
What’s it like to see through avatar eyes?
Before visiting Anybots, I logged on to QB12 and began exploring the office. I used the arrow keys to pilot my droid around, enjoying the sensation of being a floating eye. It felt like a combination of Google’s Street View and a first-person shooter video game. Since the pole had been adjusted to meet my actual height of 6’2″, I could sense it swaying back and forth somewhat as QB moved around, but it didn’t make me too dizzy. I rolled up to a mirror and looked at my glowing camera eyes; I looked pale and stiff. With my mouse, I could direct QB’s class II laser pointer, navigating was intuitive, and QB’s obstacle-detection system kept me from banging into anything. Meanwhile, I could chat with Blackwell and Anybots staff just like with a webcam.
Did it feel like being there? The more I focused on the browser window, the more immersed I became, and I soon forgot where I was. Wild sci-fi scenarios like Surrogates and Blade Runner came to mind: what if QB were lifelike enough to pass for human? It’s easy to imagine a nightmare of robots running wild in the future, so I was reassured by a display in the Anybots office. It was a quote by the father of robotics himself, Joseph Engelberger: “You end up with a tremendous respect for a human being if you’re a roboticist.”