A small Chinese startup is working on an idea that’s straight out of the movies: Cheap, easy-to-use telepresence robots. PadBot, which is currently running an Indiegogo campaign, wants to put $450 robots in homes and hospitals which allow people to communicate with remote friends, family members, and colleagues.
Ghangzhou-based manufacturers Inbot tech thinks its formula, which takes advantage of Bluetooth, iOS, and Android, will appeal to children who live far away from grandparents and companies seeking to loop remote employees into conferences. Their vaguely humanoid telepresence robots follow the same format as similar robots by industry giants like iRobot, but are far cheaper. iRobot’s more fully featured Ava 500, for instance, is reported by Slashgear to lease for a staggering $2,500 a month.
One big challenge for the PadBot, at least initially, is that they’re, well… short. Communicating at eye level for most adult users of the PadBot requires sitting down. While the low height of the robot keeps them affordable and, importantly, cute rather than creepy, it also influences use cases. Ava 500 and its ilk are simply more usable for office meetings, while PadBot seems destined for home and institutional use. Since PadBot has not made it onto the market yet, it’s hard to say just how sturdy and functional the robots themselves are. However, demos of the company’s UI indicate an intuitive interface for both parties in the conversation.
Justin Van of PadBot told Co.Labs by email that he and cofounder Blue Tan currently have five employees; with that team, they estimate they can have robots shipping by the end of the year. The PadBot, which is a little less than three feet tall, uses a cloud backend and iOS/Android apps that let users transfer video, voice, and robot movements. The robots themselves are connected to users’ tablets and smartphones via a low-energy Bluetooth connection, and can perform such nifty robotic tricks as running around a room and tilting or waving its head.
As of press time, PadBot has raised approximately $27,000 of the $30,000 they plan to raise on Indiegogo by August 31. But there’s one big catch for early users: PadBot requires at least two tablets or smartphones on each side to work. One device serves as the robot’s "head" (through an articulated, adjustable phone/tablet holder) and the other device is held by the user as they converse and helps to control the robot on the other end. Part of the reason the company is able to market its robots at such a low price is that it is essentially piggybacking on a lot of the brainpower of the user's smartphones and tablets.
While Inbot and PadBot are good examples of inventors outside of the United States and Europe bringing genius products to market through crowdfunding, they’re also entering a competitive field. Various players have tried to make low-cost telepresence robots happen with varying degrees of success; the super-low cost Telemba, the midrange Double Robots with an approximately $2,500 retail price and telepresence-ish tools such as Kubi and Helios all participate in the space. The first company who can crack the code of a low-price, intuitive interface, and a sturdy physical product stands to gain a lot from the telepresence robot market.