In an episode of "The Big Bang Theory," a character, terrified that an accident might damage his valuable brain, sequesters himself in a room and sends out a ""Mobile Virtual Presence Device" to face his daily tasks and dangers. A remote-controlled robot with a video-chat broadcasting monitor for a head, the device is played for laughs in the TV show -- but in the enterprise, Cisco thinks the technology could boost productivity, especially in remote management situations.
On Monday, the San Jose-based company and robotics vendor iRobot announced the Ava 500, a "video collaboration robot" infused with Cisco's TelePresence EX60 personal video software. Able to autonomously navigate environments, the device vaguely resembles a cylinder on wheels, with a monitor and camera mounted on top to allow on-site workers to talk face-to-face with remote collaborators.
Given that webcams are already used in remote meetings, and mobile video chats are now common due to smartphones and tablets, a robot might seem excessive. But Angie Mistretta, Cisco's director of telepresence solutions marketing, said current equipment simply isn't enough in some cases.
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In an interview, she said that mobile devices are great for quick, ad-hoc video sessions but impractical when it comes to sustained meetings or remote facility tours. Someone remotely watching such a tour would be subjected to "images like The Blair Witch Project, really shaky" if a handheld tablet were used to broadcast the video, she said. Desktops are tethered to a static point of view, which constrains their use.
The Ava 500, in contrast, can "walk" alongside other meeting participants, allowing a remote user a stable, full-HD image of the proceedings. Even in stationary moments, the robot has a leg up on other video products because it lets users easily turn the device's "head," allowing participants to look around a location from thousands of miles away. For lengthy meetings in which range of motion and spontaneous action are important, in other words, the Ava 500 could be an alternative to in-person attendance.
Mistretta suggested one scenario could involve a single facility, such as a factory, equipped with several robots. A remote manager could log into one, make rounds to check on operations throughout the site, and then log off, making the robot available to another distantly located colleague. With geographic and spatial barrier somewhat diminished, employees could work in one place while maintaining a tangible presence in several others, theoretically allowing companies to connect talent and resources in more productive ways.
Marcio Macedo, director of product management at iRobot, said the Ava 500 is an enterprise-grade device that complies with the same IT security standards as Cisco's other TelePresence products, and can hook into companies' existing, standards-based communication platforms.
Macedo also stressed the Ava 500's autonomy. Users rely on an iPad app, which will eventually expand to other platforms, to remotely control the device. But aside from turning the Ava 500's camera or directing the robot's movement within a small space, users leave the navigational duties to the device itself.
Macedo said that the first time a robot tours a facility, it uses a variety of embedded sensors to make a "map" that it uses thereafter to chart courses. The sensors also enable the robot to alter these courses on the fly, adapting to accommodate anything from passing foot traffic to piles of boxes left in a hallway. If a site adds subsequent robots, the newer models can share the original Ava 500's maps, allowing companies to quickly ramp up.
When the Ava 500 completes a session, it automatically returns to its charging station. While it is en route, it can travel in either "private" mode, in which its TelePresence screen is blank, or "public" mode, in which the screen is active, allowing the user to see the robot's journey, and for people along the Ava 500's path to see the user's face on the screen. If the user chooses, she can even make the robot stop so she can chat with those it meets along the way.
IDC reported last month that IT spending on video conferencing equipment was down in the first quarter, but the research firm still maintained a positive outlook for the industry, noting video's increasing role as a "key component of collaboration." It remains to be seen if products such as the Ava 500 will be the ones to restart spending, but interested companies can expect the robots to become available in early 2014.