iRobot’s Ava 500 Robot Is the Office Mate of the Future

Flying to the home office is so 2012. The next big thing is telepresence robots. It’s not a new idea, but iRobot and Cisco’s spin on it, the Ava 500, may be the first viable robotic solution for “face-to-face” communication for far-flung telecommuters and satellite office workers.

While other mobile teleconferencing systems rely on the joystick approach to move the telepresence robot from one place to another, Ava 500 will use a preinstalled map of its office home. The end user simply selects a destination — and schedule, if need be — on the iPad mini. Ava 500 does the rest.

iRobot CEO and cofounder Colin Angle has been working to solve the problem of telepresence robots for years. “I’ve been at this for a while and have not launched at least five times because, while what we had developed was minutes of fun, it was not a professional tool," he said. "It would not prompt people to use the robot instead of the airplane.”

Ava 500 is meant to create a presence comparable to you being inside the room. “Ultimately it’s not about the robot,” Angle said. “It’s about the experience delivered to the person on the far end.”

Why a Robot?
Cisco’s Dave Evans said that despite Cisco’s leadership position in business telepresence, the company wanted to do something to expand its portfolio. Ava 500 “takes us past traditional fixed environments” and offers “location spontaneity.”

Angle told me he envisions people gathering around the water cooler with Ava 500 by their side. No one will interact with the robot; instead, they will focus on whoever is on screen, he said.

iRobot and Cisco plan to kick off a beta program later this year, and should begin shipping in early 2014. Each unit could rent for around $2,500 a month. In addition to the robot, companies will receive a Cisco Executive 60 Video Conference system and an iPad mini preinstalled with the control software. Angle told me they’re working on an Android version, but will not ship with that support.

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