LAS VEGAS Trevor Blackwell has been building robots since he was a kid. At the Consumer Electronics Show he rolled out his first unit that he hopes to sell starting this fall.
His $30,000 bot called QA acts like a life-sized video conferencing system on wheels, giving users a feeling of tele-presence. It sports two 5 Mpixels eyes, full voice telephony to speak and hear and a laser pointer as a finger.
Users can control the sleek five-foot, 35 pound robot remotely from any web browser using nothing more than a mouse. The Wi-Fi-based system aims to let remote users amble around offices that could be across town or across the globe, interacting with fellow employees.
"We think this is the killer application for robots," said Blackwell, a Ph.D. in computer science from Harvard who was able to start his own robot company after selling an e-commerce company to Yahoo in 1998.
One of the top challenges designing the system was finding ways to make sure users could drive the bot safely at speeds up to 12 MPH from a PC. QA has a laser radar system in its feet to detect and avoid walls, but dealing with the imperfections of a Wi-Fi control network remains a hurdle.
Back in the lab, the four-person company called Anybots (Mountain View, Calif.) has two other robots in the works. Monty stands five foot seven, weighs 135 pounds and sports a hand that uses 18 servo-actuators to grab and carry objects.
Dexter stands five feet ten inches tall, weighs 135 pounds and walks on two pneumatic legs. Dexter walks like a human with a forward falling motion, other biped robots move slowly because designers want them to stay constantly in balance.
It's not clear when Dexter's gate will be smooth enough to walk out of the lab and into the market. In the meantime, Blackwell thinks QA has the best sales potential of his emerging family.
"Most of the reason people travel is not to do manual labor but to talk to people," he said.