BELLEVUE, Wash. – In a sixth-floor executive suite here, Deepak Savadatti’s robot has its own office with a view.
Savadatti himself may be sitting in front of a computer hundreds of miles away, at his home in Palo Alto, Calif. He may be dialing in from a smartphone on the road, or at the beach. No matter where he is, his face pops up on the robot’s screen, his voice issues forth from a speaker, and he can even roll around the office to look out the window.
“My kids are surprised that this is working out so well,” Savadatti told GeekWire via robot. “It’s as real as it’s going to get. The very fact that I can move in and out gives me a lot of freedom to be able to have a real workday.”
It’s close to the ultimate in telecommuting: Savadatti’s telepresence robot lets him do his job as the chief operating officer of Bellevue-based BlueDot, the “innovation factory” founded by veteran tech entrepreneur Naveen Jain, while he’s sitting in a home office hundreds of miles away.
Meanwhile, Jain is sitting in the office next door – in the flesh, unlike Savadatti.
“To me, this is really the idea of location-shifting, just like the DVR does time-shifting,” Jain said.
The remote-controlled robot lets Savadatti take part in the goings-on of a startup without having to relocate his family. The same goes for BlueDot’s chief technology officer, former NASA astronaut Scott Parazynski, who steers a robot from his home office in Houston.
“It allows us to find the greatest minds, wherever they are, and essentially have them work on the problem that really matters,” Jain explained. “If I were to ask Scott that the only way you could work at BlueDot is you have to physically move here, chances are I would have lost him – because there’s no way he would have given up his life where he is.”
Parazynski said the robot arrangement is ideal. “I love the ability to work at home, and yet have the ability to work with my teammates,” he said. He uses a Beam+ telepresence robot from Suitable Technologies, which sells for about $2,000. Savadatti, meanwhile, steers a BeamPro – which has a $16,000 price tag but is more typically leased.
“I got the bigger and prettier one because I picked first,” Savadatti joked.
Lots of folks are “beaming” into remote locations. Fugitive NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden is arguably the best-known example: Because he’s essentially in exile in Moscow, Snowden uses a telerobot nicknamed “Snowbot” to interact with advisers in New York or speak to a TED audience in Vancouver.
ABI Research estimates that the market for mobile robotic telepresence systems will rise from $42 million in 2014 to $372 million in 2019, with the biggest advances coming in health care, business management and retail. In addition to Suitable Technologies and Double Robotics, the market leaders include iRobot, VGo Communications, MantaroBot and Giraff Technologies.
Inside BlueDot’s office suite, Savadatti and Parazynski can huddle with Jain and other staffers in Bellevue by wheeling their wi-fi-enabled robots into a meeting room. They can zoom in with their cameras to read facial expressions, share pictures or documents on the tablet screen that serves as their “face,” and monitor a down-pointing camera to make sure their robots don’t trip over obstacles.
When Savadatti and Parazynski are done for the day, they just back their robots into the electrical charging stations that sit in the corners of their offices, log off and power down.
There are some things the telepresence robots can’t do … yet. They can’t pick up or manipulate objects, because they don’t have arms. (Origin Robotics is already addressing that issue). The robots can’t venture outside the building, or get into a car, or pay a visit to the company’s collaborators at research institutions across the country. For that, Jain still needs to send the real Savadatti and the real Parazynski. But the robots do just fine for most of the work that goes into building a startup.
“Compared to a phone call, it’s better in every single way,” Savadatti said.
He’s not worried that the rise of office-bots will take away human jobs. “I think it’s actually going to help create more jobs,” he said – not only for the companies that make the robots, but also for companies like BlueDot that rely upon expertise from a wide range of locations.
Parazynski said he’d love to extend the robotic experience to some of the labs he currently has to visit in the flesh. It’d be useful to have a robot at Los Alamos National Laboratory, or at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to tag along as researchers show off what they’re developing. “We really need to be there, as opposed to being in an office in Bellevue,” Parazynski said. “We really need to look over their shoulders and see how that optical bench is coming together, or whatever the project is.”
But the way Savadatti sees it, telepresence will never fully replace physical presence.
“Twenty years ago, when WebEx [teleconferencing] got started, I remember so many research notes being published that said, ‘Oh my God, the travel industry is going to be affected tremendously.’ But it didn’t happen that way,” he said. “Same way here: All these things are only going to add to what we can do. … You can never take away that personal touch.”
And I smiled in agreement. With a robot.