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Innovation Economy

You, robot

Nashua start-up hopes to revolutionize meetings at work by untethering video equipment from the conference room

By Scott Kirsner
Globe Columnist / May 30, 2010

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Sitting in his cubicle in Nashua, Tim Root clicks his mouse a few times to steer a tall, white robot around a corner and through the doorway of a conference room. Root’s face is visible on a small screen where you’d expect the robot’s head to be. He says hello, and joins a meeting in progress.

Both Root’s cubicle and the conference room are inside the headquarters of Vgo Communications Inc., the company Root founded in 2007. But the company has had people “beam in’’ to its robots from as far away as China, and Vgo’s premise is that this kind of robot-enabled “telepresence’’ is exactly what the videoconferencing business needs: a way of being somewhere, without getting on a plane, that is much better than simply showing up as a face on a wall-mounted flat-screen TV.

Early next month, Root’s company will introduce its product, known as the Vgo, at a Las Vegas trade show. To design and launch the product, the company (originally known as North End Technologies) has raised more than $8 million in venture capital funding, much of it from Castile Ventures, a Waltham firm. But Vgo will soon face competition from at least two West Coast start-ups that plan to start selling their own videoconferencing bots later this year.

Being able to roll down the aisles of a production facility, or cruise into the cafeteria for a lunchtime chat, is an entirely different thing than trudging into a conference room for a scheduled videoconference meeting, says Root.

“We wanted to build a device that could represent you in another location,’’ he says. “You can have ad hoc interactions with it as you roam around.’’

Root started thinking about the opportunity for a new, more mobile approach to videoconferencing while serving as the chief technology officer at PictureTel Corp., an early maker of videoconferencing systems based in Andover. But it wasn’t until he met Grinnell Moore, an alumnus of iRobot Corp., that the company really started to take shape.

“A lot of roboticists have tried to build a robot and throw a camera and a microphone on it, and say you can use it for videoconferencing,’’ Root says. “We wanted to come at it from a communications perspective, and look at how it could actually support conversations.’’

What they developed is an elegant, two-wheeled robot a little shorter than a floor lamp; it looks like it could have been cast as an extra in the futuristic Pixar movie “Wall-E.’’ Vgo created not just the robot, but also the software that runs on a desktop or laptop to control the machine and communicate through it. Vgo plans to start selling the robot next month for $5,000 through a network of videoconferencing distributors like Marlborough-based OmniPresence Inc.; a mandatory maintenance and support contract will cost $1,200 per year.

The robot is easy to guide, either by using a mouse or the arrow keys on a computer keyboard. The camera automatically turns down at the floor when you start moving, so you can see any obstacles, and there are infrared sensors that tell you when you’re about to bump into something. A downward-facing sensor constantly looks for stairs or ledges, to prevent you from taking a tumble.

There are two speakers built into the bot, and four microphones that light up green to indicate you’re listening to the proceedings in a room or glow red when you’re on “mute.’’ When you need to see something at a higher resolution — like the writing on a whiteboard, for instance — you can take a still snapshot that’s quickly downloaded to your computer for closer scrutiny.

But videoconferencing still isn’t perfect: Even in a demo conducted inside Vgo’s offices, with Root talking about the company’s effort to create “world-class hardware and software,’’ the image on the robot’s screen can freeze, the audio can get garbled, and the speaker’s lips can drift out of sync with his voice. Videoconferencing is still waiting for its “Jazz Singer’’ moment, when everything works well enough to reliably impress people.

Earlier this week, using a videoconferencing bot developed by Willow Garage Inc., a Silicon Valley company that plans to bring its “Texai’’ product to market later this year, I got some experience using the bot for long-distance communication. From my home in Cambridge, I “dialed in’’ to a robot parked at Willow’s California headquarters and listened for a while as a company executive demonstrated one of the company’s humanoid robots for a roomful of journalists.

It was easy to see and hear him when he spoke to the group, but afterward, when the room broke up into a dozen cacophonous conversations, I suddenly felt like an 80-year-old man in a noisy restaurant. It was impossible to make out what people were saying, figure out when there was an appropriate opening to ask a question, or get anyone’s attention by calling out to them.

But by moving around the room, I had a much richer sense of “being there’’ that I would have by simply viewing a live webcast. (Willow hasn’t yet set a price for the Texai, which has a bigger screen than the Vgo.) Along with Willow Garage, another Silicon Valley start-up, Anybots Inc., founded by one-time Cambridge entrepreneur Trevor Blackwell, has announced plans to start selling a $15,000 videoconferencing bot this fall.

Brad Kayton, Vgo’s chief executive, says the company has been testing its robots with about 40 prospective customers, at universities, manufacturers, call centers, health care providers, and retailers. One executive at a chemical company, Kayton says, was able to monitor experiments in various company labs without having to hop on a plane.

Two analysts I spoke with differed on the potential for robotic videoconferencing. Rob Enderle, a technology analyst at the Enderle Group who has written about the slow spread of traditional videoconferencing systems, said that “the closer we get to simulating being there, the better an alternative to travel it will become.’’

But Dan Kara, president of the publishing company Robotics Trends in Framingham, said, “I’m not quite sold on mobile telepresence. How is it that much better than having someone at the remote site carry around a netbook computer with a free copy of Skype on it?’’

Interestingly, a decade ago, a start-up called iRobot introduced a robotic videoconferencing system at exactly the same price as the Vgo ($4,995) in exactly the same place (a Las Vegas trade show). Cofounder Colin Angle told me then that he’d be disappointed if the company “didn’t sell several thousand of these next year,’’ meaning in 2001.

But iRobot never put the device into production. Not enough homes or offices had wireless networks yet, and the company would have needed large volumes of orders to be able to turn a profit at the $4,995 price point.

“I don’t think we were wrong about robots and videoconferencing,’’ says cofounder Helen Greiner. “It was just well ahead of its time.’’

Vgo’s Root is convinced that the time is now: He harkens back to the moment when cellular phones were liberated from vehicles, and suddenly consumers could tote one along anywhere. “Now, anyone over the age of 8 has at least one mobile phone,’’ he says.

What will be ironic is if Vgo, with two iRobot veterans on its 20-person team, winds up competing not just with the two West Coast start-ups, but with iRobot, now a publicly traded company with about 500 employees based in Bedford.

Though iRobot hasn’t announced any plans to return to the robo-conferencing arena, Angle writes in an e-mail, “We have long felt that the right product and the right price would find an exciting market. And we continue to perform research and experiment in this space.’’

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.

On the go
New England companies have been playing a key role in the emerging field of mobile robotics — intelligent, wheeled machines that are no longer bolted to the floor of a factory. Some milestones:

2002 iRobot Corp. introduces the Roomba FloorVac, an autonomous home vacuum cleaner.
2005 Kiva Systems Inc. unveils its robotic warehouse workers. Small, rolling robots carry racks of merchandise to workers who fill orders.
2008: Harvest Automation Inc. demonstrates a robot that works like a mini forklift, designed to move potted plants around at commercial nurseries.
2009: iRobot cofounder Helen Greiner gets first funding to develop flying surveillance bots for military, police, and industrial applications through her new start-up CyPhy Works Inc.
2010: Tall, wheeled, wireless robot from Vgo Communications Inc. tries to free videoconferencing from the conference room.