In 2011, iRobot, best known for its vacuum cleaners and war machines, introduced its AVA platform. Now, in 2013, iRobot is ready to make good on AVA's promise — almost. Today it's announcing the AVA 500, a semi-autonomous telepresence robot for businesses, packed with Cisco's TelePresence videoconferencing software, and bearing a too-high-to-publish pricetag. Unlike the original AVA, which carried an iPad on top of its skinny neck, the AVA 500 carrier a hefty Cisco EX60 21.5-inch LCD "video endpoint," and is proportioned and styled like an electronic car charging station. The display, which has an HD webcam atop it, can slide between "sitting" and "standing" heights. Primary navigation data is gathered by a Kinect-style sensor.
iRobot's real leg up over the rapidly-growing telepresence competition is the AVA 500's ability to navigate a space without babysitting on either end of the connection — a remote operator can simply select where in a building they'd like to arrive, and the building's nearest AVA will give them a call when it gets there. The metaphor iRobot began the project with, says Colin, is one of "teleporting to a meeting." The "operator" only has to operate when inclined to do so.
This navigation is bulletproof
The robot is actually the second commercial application for the AVA platform. Earlier this year iRobot launched the RP-Vita in collaboration with InTouch Health, a remote presence robot for doctors to visit patients. To be allowed to roam the halls of a hospital autonomously, RP-Vita underwent FDA approval, which gives iRobot a great selling point for its AVA platform in general: this navigation is bulletproof. Or you could lean on another example: during AVA's development, iRobot would throw pizza parties for employees to give AVA a crowd to wade through. Uninitiated locals might feel inclined to steer clear of AVA's wide girth, but the robot is well attuned to both animate and inanimate obstacles, and will swiftly steer clear of both.
iRobot CEO Colin Angle contrasts the AVA experience and other telepresence robots as one of "professional" versus "joystick." A professional can't be bothered to pilot her robot through the halls of an office she hardly knows, utilizing a video game interface. The AVA 500 can be piloted by manual controls, but the preferred method is obviously the automatic one. You simply use the companion iPad app to select a location in the office, AVA pilots itself there, and notifies you when it arrives. Meanwhile, all the actual communication happens on your computer, through Cisco's video conferencing software.
To work its magic, AVA 500 requires an initial setup. An iRobot technician shows up at your space and drives the robot around, while the bot maps the space using "SLAM" (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping). The robot's map is then overlaid on a blueprint of the building to give a better visual for the user, and the various destinations are named. Because AVA creates its map as it rolls along, it can automatically update its internal map with any changes to layout, or out-of-place chairs, or out-of-place people.
"It's the first navigating platform that's ready for prime time and not just a cool lab demo."
iRobot's approach is a direct contrast to that of the Suitable Beam, which offers no autonomy, relies entirely on user "joystick" control, and requires extensive wireless networking setup as part of the install process. Suitable created a communications solution to make a telepresence robot work, iRobot built a robot and put a communications solution on top of it.
"It's the first navigating platform that's ready for prime time and not just a cool lab demo," says Colin. Of course, "firsts" are expensive, and it appears that AVA 500 will be no exception. Colin sees mid-to-large sized businesses with multiple campuses as the primary customer, where remote executives can drop in on their employees in AVA form without the hassle of less-advanced telepresence solutions or the limitations of a stationary camera. The robots will be available to lease for around $2,000 — $2,500, if the final sticker price proves too much.
App developers will have to wait
iRobot plans to ship the AVA 500 early next year. The bot is entering the "beta" stage right now, which basically means that iRobot didn't want to keep quiet about the project any longer. "We're announcing it because frankly we're going to start using it," Colin explained to us. "We're so eager to start taking advantage of this tool we're developing."
Unfortunately, there's no mention of the AVA platform's original promise: an iPad on top of a navigation platform, giving any app developer the ability to helm this navigation platform. In fact, Colin contrasts the AVA 500 to the "iPad on a stick" solutions currently in the telepresence space. But while the dream of app developers will have to wait for now, AVA 500 is a platform, and will continue to benefit from innovations by iRobot and Cisco. Coming soon to a Fortune 500 company near you: a software update for your AVA that teaches it how to ride elevators.