On a crisp
Saturday morning late last fall, outside the Gates Center on the campus of
Carnegie Mellon University, Michael Clark thought he sensed something odd
behind him. Clark, an adjunct faculty member in CMU's Institute for Software
Research, looked over his shoulder to find 50 Girl Scouts, many with their
faces pressed against the building's glass doors, peering inside at a robot on
the other side of the glass.
wanted to see the 'Anybot,'" recalls Clark, who has used the robot to teach
classes at CMU. "After I brought them inside and gave them a tour, many of them
still wanted to walk past the Anybot and pat it on the head."
specifically known as the QB and built by Anybots
Inc., has that kind of effect on people. Looking like a cross between a
Segway and an ET doll, the QB has the kind of appeal that many robots lack.
With its two big "eyes," it looks just human enough to give passersby the warm
fuzzies, but not so human that it gives them the creeps.
"Its mouth doesn't move and it has no resemblance to human form, other
than its 'eyes,'" Clark says. "It has no arms and hands, and with its low
torque motors, you can hold it back with just the push of a finger."
QB is already starting to gain social acceptance, but its bigger task still
awaits. The product's designer, noted roboticist Trevor Blackwell, hopes to
place thousands of the QB robots in businesses around the world at $15,000
apiece. His vision: to have the robot serve as an "avatar" - a replacement for
a person who can't attend a meeting. His robot consists of a head, with the
aforementioned eyes, and a display screen that allows users to show their
faces. But it also goes a step farther - being an avatar, it serves as a
replacement body for its remote users, enabling them to move around a
conference table, wander from office to office, or just meet people in the
has meetings and every meeting has a break where people go out in the hall and
drink coffee and talk," says Clark. "Speaker phones don't move, but an avatar
robot can. It can go out in the hall and allow you to talk to people. It does
everything except drink coffee."
idea for the QB began taking shape about two-and-a-half years ago, after his
nine-year-old company had been experimenting with a 150-lb robot that
could lift objects and perform manual labor. Over time, though, Blackwell and
his colleagues noticed something curious about their manual labor robot: In
their own facility, they weren't using it for chores; they were using it for
moment occurred when we saw that we were using it to pop in and out of
offices and talk to people," Blackwell recalls. "So here we had this giant
150-pound robot, and we were using it to talk. We realized we could remove a
lot of the features and still be able to do that."