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I, telepresence robot

The September issue of IEEE Spectrum had an article by Erico Guizzo on telepresence robots.  A telepresence robot is a robot that goes to work in your stead.  They’re not quite at the point where you could dress one up in your clothes and pass it off for yourself, but they do allow you “walk around” and visit co-workers while you remain, unshaven, at the kitchen table.

The model Erico tested is called QB, made by Silicon Valley startup Anybots.  They’re on sale now, although be warned, the QB will set you back $15,000.  QB uses a two wheeled base and is self balancing, similar to a Segway. Guizzo spent a week interacting with his co-workers remotely, occasionally losing the connection to the QB and having to ask co-workers “Will you please reboot me”?

Overall he gives it a good rating, due mainly to the fact that remote telepresence allows you to have the casual interactions that telepresence doesn’t.

So what’s a $15K commercially available device doing in a Gadget Freak column?  Good question.

In October, IEEE Spectrum writer David Schneider followed up with an article of his own where he attempted to build his own telepresence robot.  Now you’re talking Gadget Freak!

Schneider built his own custom base, opting for a traditional 3 wheeled arrangement rather than the self balancing setup the QB uses.  Other major components are:

  • Netbook computer
  • Motor/mount/wheel kit
  • half bridge motor drivers
  • ultrasonic and bump sensors
  • lead/acid battery
  • Arduino
  • Logitech webcam
  • pan/tilt mechanism

The total cost was in the $1000 range.  The netbook handles the remote communication, which happens using Skype, and a project called SkyDuino.  SkyDuino (which is written in C#) uses the Skype API to send single character messages to an Arduino.  It is designed to control a pan and tile webcam, so Schneider modified it add messages for controlling the robot as well.

The robot (it is apparently unnamed) has some environmental sensors as well, and can report back to the operator how far it is from the nearest obstacle, and which of its bump sensors have contacted something.  It has problems with dropped calls and occasionally needs someone at the remote end to give it some fixin, a problem which the much more expensive QB had as well.

Sounds like a neat project, I’ve put one on my one of these days to-do list.

Steve Ravet

Design News Gadgeteer

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