Business grows more global everyday and what was once done by a single corporation is now more likely to be spread over many small businesses. Ideally, managers and remotely-based employees would like a virtual presence at a location, but telepresence robots are often more like smartphones on remote-controlled sticks, so they lack a feeling of personal presence and naturalism. At the InfoComm 2013 Conference and Expo in Orlando, Florida, iRobot, in collaboration with Cisco, have unveiled the Ava 500; a telepresence robot that combines auto navigation and a high-definition screen for a more natural telepresence.
According to a UCLA study, seven percent of communication is verbal and 93 percent is non-verbal. Beyond this simple fact, many people are much more comfortable working with others in person and a surprising amount of work is achieved through seemingly casual conversation. A chat while leaving a meeting can make a deal and a casual observation on a factory tour can break a seemingly insoluble problem.
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Teleconference systems are meant to provide something like this, but specially-equipped conference rooms or carts are static and current telepresence robots have low definition video and are a bit like navigating a toy car.
iRobot has been working on the latter part of the robotic problem with its RP-VITA, which it markets for medical customers and uses an autonomous navigation system to simplify moving it about. However, the audiovisual quality was still lacking, so Cisco was brought in to mate iRobot’s Ava robotic platform with Cisco’s TelePresence EX60 21.5-inch HD resolution screen and camera to produce what it calls the first telepresence robot with high-definition video. The result is the Ava 500.
The idea is to go beyond desk and table-bound teleconferences and allow for a more personal presence and more natural interaction. According to iRobot, not only can the Ava 500 be used for meetings, but also presentations, factory tours, off-site management, “visits” by people in remote offices, and team collaboration. More importantly, it aims to allow users comfortable interaction with people at the remote location and carry on informal conversations where ideas are swapped.
Half of the equation is the Ava 500’s autonomous navigation system. Instead of the user piloting the robot around, it maps out its environment beforehand and remembers where things are and how to get from point A to point B safely and efficiently. An iPad interface is used to schedule and control the Ava 500 while the audio/video interface is a dedicated high-definition screen and camera on the user’s desk.
Transfer to the robot is seamless and direct without any complex on-screen searching and check in. The destination is selected by tapping a map or choosing a room or person from a list. Once the location is selected or a scheduled appointment time is reached, an available robot activates and heads for the destination on its own. As it travels, it senses people and other obstacles and tries to avoid them. If it’s in “public” mode, the user’s face is displayed on the screen. If it’s in “private,” it’s not.
Once at the destination, the user can control the robot from the tablet with little training and can even raise or lower the screen to accommodate others who may be sitting or standing. When finished, the Ava 500 automatically returns to its charging station. During the operation, security is provided by Cisco Aironet 1600 Series wireless access points.
The Ava 500 will available to select Cisco partners early next year. iRobot and Cisco are demonstrating the robot at the InfoComm 2013 from June 12 to 14.
The video below shows the Ava 500 in action.