Test-driving the laser-wielding QB telepresence robot

I "robotted in" to Anybots, a Silicon Valley startup, and test-drove its QB telepresence robot. I particularly enjoyed trying to crash it into walls. But is it worth the $15,000 price tag?

Tim Hornyak
Crave freelancer Tim Hornyak is the author of "Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots." He has been writing about Japanese culture and technology for a decade. E-mail Tim.
Tim Hornyak
4 min read

Laser eyes: My robot reflection in the mirror at the Anybots office.
Laser eyes: My robot reflection in the mirror at the Anybots office. Tim Hornyak/CNET

If you're lazy and dig the idea of a robot fetching you beer, the idea of a robot going to the office for you is even better. Anybots, a California robot start-up, is launching its QB telepresent robots this fall, and I recently got to take one for a remote spin.

The idea behind telepresence robots is to give users the ability to project their presence to a remote location through a robot, essentially driving a video conference around and interacting with colleagues in a richer manner than voice or video alone.

QB fun: Vaporizing humans.
QB fun: Vaporizing humans. Video screenshot by Tim Hornyak/CNET

For the test drive, I first "robotted in" to the Anybots office in Silicon Valley (how quaint that this verb is still a nonentity on Google). My surrogate was QB12, one of many robots lined up in a hallway there.

The 25 QBs made so far are basically self-balancing Webcams on wheels. Lacking arms and legs, they look like living room lamps on Segways. They weigh about 35 pounds and can travel up to 3.5 miles per hour, fast enough to keep up with someone walking. Their lithium ion batteries can power them for six to eight hours of use.

When a QB is hosting a user, its eyes glow. The Web browser interface (currently Mac only) is very simple--you can see what the robot sees through its panning camera eyes; a smaller window displays a shot of its wheeled base to help steer. Navigation is through arrow keys.

You can also indicate objects (but unfortunately not atomize them) with a class II laser pointer, controlled by mouse. Three built-in microphones focus on the loudest voice they can pick up. A small screen mounted on QB's head will show a video of the remote user if he or she has a Webcam, or simply a photo.

Telepresence felt like a Webcam chat combined with Street View combined with an FPS game, as well as the sensation of riding a unicycle a million miles away. Driving the QB, though, was a very intuitive experience, and the robot's LIDAR obstacle-sensing system prevented it from crashing into people and walls, even when I wanted it to.

The system has a 6-foot range that automatically compensates for bad driving; it also helped me navigate through doorways. Nut jobs won't be able to go postal with a QB, though I managed to shoot my laser pointer into the eyes of another reporter who was physically present, while I muttered "phased plasma rifle in the 40-watt range." It was a highlight of the experience, but he survived.

Staff at Anybots granted a request and adjusted the height of my QB to 6 feet, 2 inches to make it as tall as me. They said it made the QB unusually intimidating. On my end, I immediately noticed the robot's custom self-balancing system working harder to keep it upright. The video feed swayed back and forth a bit, but I didn't get seasick.

After driving through the office and knocking over a cardboard cutout of Sarah Palin (another highlight), I chatted with Anybots founder Trevor Blackwell, a Harvard PhD and former Viaweb e-commerce guy who, as it turns out, once reverse-engineered a Segway and built an electric unicycle. The exchange happened to be my first telepresent interview in which I was in robot form. In Kyoto, I interviewed Osaka University professor Hiroshi Ishiguro while he was telepresent as his robot clone Geminoid, and that was way more "Blade Runner."

Your new legs.
Your new legs. Anybots

"QB is great for tech teams where one or two people are remote--there's no need for a conference room," says Blackwell, who, along with Anybots' receptionist, regularly robots in to the office. "It's more like being there in person than with a (Webcam chat) or a phone."

Blackwell is hoping technology workers will appreciate the difference enough to spend $15,000 on a QB after the robots start shipping this fall. That's way more than a free Skype chat, but less than half the price of a Cisco TelePresence System 500, which doesn't even include a robot. Obviously, users will want the mobility and perhaps even the informality that remote robots can offer; other firms, such as Willow Garage, also see telepresent bots as a potential future market.

On the retail side, it's easy to imagine telepresence bots working in museums as part of a telepresence travel industry. They could also work as sales clerks and receptionists in stores, offices, and information centers, not to mention as law-enforcement patrols. The possibilities seem endless.

"The QBs can travel outside as well, and can go up and down slopes--anything ADA-compliant (Americans with Disabilities Act standards) is fine," says Blackwell, adding that Anybots is working on 4G cellular support to give QBs greater outdoor coverage. "They can also roll over piles of shoes that are lying around."

But can they roll over humans when the humans are dead? Good heavens, I thought, letting QBs run amok in the streets might spark some sort of robot revolution.

With my telepresent robotic eyes, I spied a display in the Anybots office that allayed my fears. 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." Amen to that.