$500 iRobot Hack Lets You Be Two Places at Once

telepresence bot

A hacker has put together a viable home-brew telepresence robot using easily available components that's good enough (if not pretty enough) to rival much more expensive peers like Anybot's QB. More than anything this suggests telepresence virtual working is an imminent phenomenon.

The enterprising chap in question is Johnny Chung Lee. Temporarily separated from his partner after a work-driven relocation, he wanted to create a simple way to maintain a presence in their previous home. Telepresence droids would be the ideal tool, but Lee decided to go the DIY route. ´

He hacked together an iRobot Create and a netbook, each costing about $250, and even re-engineered the iRobot automated charging stand to juice up the netbook's batteries as well as the robot's driving base. With freely available video-conferencing software like Skype running on the netbook, a two-way audio-visual remote-control telepresence robot is the result.

Check it out in the video.

It works! While it lacks the elegance of a factory-crafted chassis and the clever self-balancing motor drive that Anybots has given the QB (which lets this robot tackle trickier floor terrain than Lee's iRobot motors can manage), Lee's creation has some definite plusses—it relies on freely available tech, requires no long-term licensing fees, leverages existing technology that most of us are familiar with and have in the home, and it costs one thirtieth of QB's $15,000 price tag (a value that's driven by Anybot's early arrival in this new market). In fact, Chung's device may even beat QB to a real "telepresence" experience, thanks to the larger screen on the netbook—this gives the user a more human-sized head on the robot than can be seen on Anybot's diminutive display (typical for these droids—the competing Vgo telepresence droid also sports a small screen), and may facilitate adoption of a telepresent-person in social situations.

But more than anything this hack tells us one big thing: Telepresence really is about to become a mainstream phenomenon. If the price of droids can drop to hundreds of dollars from thousands, and if the financial and ecological burden of millions of commuters driving to work becomes a real problem, telepresence is a logical alternative.

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