Test-driving Willow Garage's telepresence robot

I got to kick the tires on Willow Garage's Texai robot, piloting it around the company's offices in Menlo Park, Calif. The Texai emphasizes man over machine.

Willow Garage's Dallas Goecker, left, in Indiana, and Sanford Dickert, in California, chat while I take a picture from Canada.
Willow Garage's Dallas Goecker, left, in Indiana, and Sanford Dickert, in California, chat while I take a picture from Canada. Tim Hornyak/CNET

I'm getting used to the idea of test-driving machines I've never touched, or seen, in person. That's what telepresence robots are all about.

After scooting around in an Anybots' QB robot in July, I recently logged on to a Texai robot (formerly, Texas) over at Willow Garage.

Video screenshot by Tim Hornyak/CNET

The Silicon Valley firms have been developing wheeled, interactive droids in the belief that people will want to communicate with remote colleagues and friends in a way that some believe is richer than a phone, teleconference, or Web chat. Consumers will likely choose a robot based on design and usability, and the Texai does well on both counts.

The Texai is a Skype- and Web browser-operated remote robot (Willow Garage calls it a "remote presence system") whose main feature is a large color LCD screen showing the pilot. Mostly built from off-the-shelf components, it has two laser range finders, a wide-angle navigation camera, a pan-tilt camera, microphone, and speakers.

Once I was logged on, piloting the Texai through the Willow Garage office was pretty much a snap. With the Skype video call window showing the front and low-angle camera views, I moved around by clicking on and dragging a red ball in a Texai navigation window in my browser. I liked the fact that everyone could clearly see who I am on the screen, and I could easily see the faces of other Texai pilots through my Skype window.

The Texai lacks some features of the Anybots QB robot, such as the laser pointer, doorway navigation assist, and remote room lighting controls. But it's very intuitive to navigate once you get used to the setup--I poked my LCD head into a Willow Garage meeting, rolled into the company lounge and ran into another Texai user in the hallway, like robots passing in the night.

I nearly bumped into some walls, however, while toggling between the main and low-angle cameras. Becoming adept at riding a Texai seems to be a matter of practice.

Willow Garage engineer Dallas Goecker, who helped build the first Texai prototype, has mastered the art. He lives in Indiana and telecommutes to the office every day. I chatted with him Texai to Texai and asked about the Texai design.

"We want to present the pilot more than the Texai itself," said Goecker, emphasizing the importance of the LCD screen. "I would perceive you very differently without a sense of your presence."

Projecting one's presence into a remote location may require new interaction protocols. Willow Garage is developing a set of principles surrounding telepresence. For instance, it would be rude to manhandle a Texai without its pilot's consent: "Just as no one wishes to be jostled about by some external party, pushing a Texai when a pilot is present represents a similar disrespect," Willow Garage says on its site.

The company won't say when the Texai may go on sale. This week, it announced that its open-source PR2 personal robot is available to the general public for a whopping $400,000. While the Texai is still under development, it will have to cost far less to be competitive once it's marketed. With competing models available to consumers, I hope we'll have telepresence races and other sporting events. May the best robot win.


 

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