Video calling and chat services like Skype have revolutionized the way people communicate over distances. It's now possible to have face-to-face conversations with people that are halfway around the globe - something that was pure science fiction just a few decades ago. The next step appears to be enabling more natural face-to-face communications complete with movement and body language. While we wait for a practical holographic or 3D telepod system system, Double Robotics, a start-up founded last year, offers a sort of robot surrogate based around the iPad.

The Double is essentially a robotic iPad dock on wheels. It augments the iPad's videoconferencing capabilities by giving the user more versatility. The user on the other end of the Double can move around the room, turn to look at a different part of the room or different person, and move his iPad/camera up and down to keep at eye level. So instead of just staring at one location, or requiring someone on the other end to move the screen, you can communicate more naturally like you would in real life.

More than just enhancing the typical video conference, the Double enables types of remote communications and collaborations that would be impossible or awkward without it. With the ability to move around freely, you aren't tied down to a single video conference room and can move around the greater environment. For instance, you could take a full tour of a new factory or office building.

The Double could work outside of the stereotypical corporate conference, too. Double Robotics mentions a few possibilities, including museums using it to provide remote tours and colleges using it to give prospective students campus and department tours. Individual businesses and organizations could certainly come up with numerous other uses tailored to their own needs.

On the minus side, the Double seems like one more tool for eliminating the sick day. Too sick to make it into work? Just work from your home computer and roll around the office via your Double.

In terms of hardware, the Double uses a combination of accelerometer and gyroscope to keep upright and balanced. A pair of kickstands deploys automatically when the controller stops moving the Double, keeping it still and balanced. It weighs 15 pounds (7 kg).

Using the Double is as simple as sliding an iPad into the dock, turning it on, downloading the accompanying app, and tapping it open to begin a video call. The Double uses a simple set of touchscreen controls to move around. The user taps the screen to access controls and can easily guide it in different directions, move the "head" up and down, and park it in one place. Multiple Doubles can be connected to the same app, and you can use an iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch or desktop browser in controlling your Double. The Double system is compatible with second- and third-generation iPads.

The US$1,999 price tag may seem high to some, but it's a much lower price point than some competitive systems, like the $9,700 Anybots device. And it seems a number of people are already hooked - Double Robotics' first production run is sold out. Shipments for orders placed before August 16 will start in December and those placed after August 16 will ship next year.

View gallery - 7 images