Meet the Roomba’s Corporate Cousin

The Ava 500 patrols offices to set up videoconference calls | An earlier model “felt like you were a rodent crawling along the floor”

Brad Stone

Since the founding of IRobot more than 20 years ago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology spinoff has produced automatons that vacuum and mop floors, clean gutters, and patrol war zones. Best known for its vacuuming Roomba, the Bedford (Mass.)-based company has sold more than 9 million home robots, moving the machines out of science fiction and into the real world of affordable devices.

On June 10, IRobot added a corporate cousin, the Ava 500, to its league of extraordinarily practical machines. The Ava, short for Avatar, is a wheeled robot designed to autonomously navigate offices and facilitate videoconference calls between workers and their remote colleagues. The robot is equipped with a high-definition video screen, a camera, some onboard mapping smarts, and Cisco Systems’ TelePresence, a high-end videoconferencing system intended to create the illusion that remote collaborators are sitting across a table from their colleagues. The idea is to “turn an entire office into a high-quality videoconferencing room,” says Colin Angle, IRobot’s chief executive.

As Angle describes it, the Ava 500 will sit parked in the corner of a customer’s office, which it maps on its onboard computer. If a worker in another office wants to initiate a meeting, he schedules a videoconference session on his computer or tablet, and at the appointed time the robot navigates the halls to that co-worker’s office to initiate the video call, using sensors to dodge gawking colleagues. It’s a more flexible alternative to expensive videoconferencing rooms outfitted with cameras and high-definition screens.

IRobot publicly unveiled the Ava 500 because it’s about to launch a round of testing with customers, but Ava won’t be widely available until next year. (A version is already in use in hospitals.) While pricing information is preliminary, it’s clear that unlike some IRobot creations, including the $350 Roomba, Ava won’t be cheap. Angle estimates IRobot will lease it to customers for $2,000 to $2,500 a month, limiting its practicality for the average startup or small business. Still, it’s a significant step forward, says Andrew Davis, an analyst at market researcher Wainhouse Research. “I think this will break new ground for a bunch of industries, including videoconference and robotics,” he says.

Angle says IRobot has been trying to crack the videoconference market for years, developing at least six prototypes it never commercialized. One could climb stairs, which the Ava 500 cannot. Another displayed facial expressions on the kind of black-and-white screen used by e-readers. Yet another looked like a Roomba with a camera mounted on top. “You felt like you were a rodent crawling along the floor, and the resolution wasn’t good enough,” Angle says of that model. “The challenge has always been building an experience, not just a robot, that provides more than just a few minutes of fun.”

For IRobot, the Ava 500 represents a new line of business outside its traditional strongholds, the home and the battlefield. Angle says he’s trying to push costs down enough so that someday a robot like Ava can become a fixture in the homes of seniors, facilitating medical care and remote family visits. “One of our big company missions has to do with extending independent living,” he says. “With every passing year, there’s a list of things we need to deliver.” Cleaning floors, it turns out, was just the beginning.

The bottom line Home and defense robot company IRobot is trying to push into office life, but expense will be a barrier.

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