Three Awesome Telepresence Robots

January 9, 2014

One of the best parts of working at TokBox was getting to play with lots of robots. Many robotics teams that were interested in telepresence stopped by and often brought in prototypes for us to check out. I worked remotely with the TokBox team in San Francisco, so we had plenty of real-world opportunity to test.

Here are my three favorites:

Double Robotics

double
Double and I are the same height.

Features: I’ve heard people call Double “that iPad on a stick”. Well. It’s an iPad on a stick - with integrated video chat (that would be TokBox), a companion web/iOS driver app with intuitive controls, a downward-facing camera (in addition to the iPad’s front and back) for navigating tricky terrain, a height adjuster if you need more stature, a slick base which is stable when stationary and smooth when in action.

Need to get hold of some one? Turn on Double and go look for him. Double broke my mental model of needing to call some one or dial-in to something to have a face-to-face conversation, which about-faced my feelings about remote working forever. I’ve written more extensively about how we used our Double (we named it J9000) here. TokBox has since bought another one for the engineering team in Spain: R-Dos-D-Dos (D-Dos, for short. I got to name our Doubles).

Best for: Most things you would normally do in-person: sneaking up on co-workers, crashing meetings no one invited you to, hanging out.

You’ll be surprised by: Double isn’t a traditional collaboration app, so it doesn’t have document- or screen-sharing. What’s surprisingly effective is driving the Double to a good vantage point and simply turning toward the thing (presentation/whiteboard/screen) like you would in person. That way you not only can consume the content but can see John nodding off in the corner too.

You may be concerned about: One problem I had as a remote user was limitations on managing the Double on the other side, i.e. it had to be physically plugged in by some one to charge, and then physically unplugged to get back in the game. Good news – Double Robotics just announced the release of a charging dock! The folks at TokBox have pre-ordered them already.

Perpetual references to Big Bang Theory – unavoidable.

One last thing: Pay pay no heed to the moment in the recent Colbert Report feature on Double when Stephen Colbert summons coffee via Double and hilarity ensues (3:27):

The first-ever Double we tested did indeed keel over a lot, but the most recent models are beautifully balanced and virtually impossible to crash. Good television, though.

Price: $2,499, iPad not included. Charging Dock $299.

Kubi by Revolve Robotics

kubi
Russell beams into the Octopart holiday party

Features: Kubi means “neck” in Japanese, which makes sense: it’s a vertical mount for an iPad which pans 300 degrees around, and tilts up and down. The remote application works on any web or mobile browser and has nifty features like saving frequently used tilt/pan positions or seating positions around a conference table. Kubi does not have integrated video chat, which allows people to use any video conferencing service they normally use at work. Even better, Kubi’s API allows developers to build their own Kubi apps – which, of course, is precisely what Song did.

At TokBox, we used one Kubi for our weekly all-hands and another Kubi as an “always-on” video chat station in our NYC office. Song’s version of the Kubi app integrated TokBox video chat and arrow-key control over the movement.

Best for: Group meetings and small spaces. Our Double was great for roaming around our wide open office space in San Francisco; our Kubi was a perfect desktop companion in our tiny co-working space in New York City.

You’ll be surprised by: The Revolve Robotics team has thrown in some thoughtful human touches. Hit the “B” key to see Kubi do this adorable, quick little bow. Pick your favorite color for the power button. The best Easter Egg is “trooper” mode which may not see the light of production, but you should ask about it when you buy your Kubi.

You may be concerned about: How much does a small iPad stand add, really? Kubi is compact, but packs a lot of presence. At our all-hands, Kubi not only made it easier to see the whole picture, but also made things sound clearer compared to Polycom. Now – I’m sure the sound wasn’t actually clearer (I can already hear Badri yelling: “It’s all psychosomatic!!”) but it feels like it is when you can turn to the speaker or the source of audio.

Price: $499, iPad not included. $399 for a hacker edition.

Romotive

romo
You know, for kids!

One of these things is not like the others: Romo’s got facial recognition, motion detection, behaviour customization – but telepresence isn’t even a core feature! It only works on iPhone 4S and up! It’s barely bigger than the palm of your hand! Its website has pictures of kids all over it! It’s a toy!

Whatever. Romo makes my cut anyway because it may not be targeting business users, but like many consumer apps spilling into businesses, it does the job well. Like Double, it’s good for moving around the office and chasing elusive co-workers. Like Kubi, it has an open API for developers (so yes, Song built his own app). Besides - it’s really cute.

Best for: One-one-ones, quick questions, entertainment

You’ll be surprised by: Did I already mention how cute Romo is? I’ve never done any work on human-machine interaction but I vaguely recall some study on why Aibo robot dogs were so popular compared to humanoid robots like Asimo. Something about the size or form factor of Romo generates warm fuzzies. Even the noise it makes when you drive it around reminds you of that model train set you had when you were seven that kept chug-chug-chugging off the rails because Dad broke the plastic track when he was setting it up for you….. anyway.

You may be concerned about: There’s a bit of overhead to get your Romo on. No one’s going to leave their iPhone in there 24/7, so you’ll need a sidekick to set you up on the other side usually.

While excellent for small meetings of the more light-hearted nature, Romo may not be the best choice for meetings where you need to tackle heavy subject matter and people say things like “I take responsibility for this” or “I’ll do better next time”. In other words: “Great work on that release!” – good; “Let’s do a post-mortem on that launch” – not so good.

Price: $149, iPhone not included.

Summary

This list isn’t ordered by preference; I developed great affection for all our robots and picking a favorite would be like choosing between children. Each robot is good at different things, so if you’re on the market for a telepresence solution, think about the specific remote working problems you’re facing, your physical space and how cute it needs to be to get your team to use it.

Happy telepresencing!