Why the iRobot AVA is a “concept”, not a product…YET.

In the days after Colin introduced the AVA “concept robot” (as defined by Gerry Caron, director of product management for iRobot), the buzz on the AVA has been superb. Since announcement, the traffic on iRobot and the iRobot AVA has been phenomenal.

But, as reported by MSNBC, Caron states:

“We want to show people a vision of what they can have” at some point with a home robot that’s designed for several uses, Caron said. (Tell them, AVA: “No, I don’t do toilets.”)

And, while the features discussed are quite impressive (as I mention in this post on the AVA), I see some serious design concerns on the device as an effective “presence system”. In this post, let me discuss them further.

UPDATE (1/13): just found BotJunkie’s video on the AVA and a conversation with Mark from iRobot where he clearly states that the AVA is a “technology demonstrator” not a telepresence robot. The idea (from what I gather) is that AVA is showing what is possible from iRobot for discussion sake – and did not want to handicap discussions with constraints for telepresence.

CONCERN 1: Drive Mechanism / Clearance

In all of the videos I’ve seen of the AVA, she moves quite gracefully from one end of the pen to the other.

AVA's Omniwhell base

Ready for the LA Streets

And with its holonomic base (read: can move in any direction equally), she moves quite fluidly. But, my concern is with AVA’s omnidirectional wheels that are in the tripod base.

While omnidirectional wheels provide excellent movement, movement on non-flat surfaces (like a shag carpet) or any form of incline will be quite a challenge. And, as seen in the BotJunkie video below (about the 3:40 mark), the shaky nature of the mecanum-wheels as the AVA moves may cause pilot concerns as the cameras shake with the high-frequency of the wheels vibration.

Floor clearance is another concern (see the distance from the edge of the bottom bumper to the floor); for if there is anything in the way of the AVA, it may have difficulty moving over it.

CONCERN 2: Gaze Issues

While I was amused by the iPad showing off the Scoomba cleaning floors and other nice video snippets, I noted two major concerns.

iRobot AVA Head

iPad above the pilot's camera which results in overlooking the pilot

  1. iPad is not hooked up at all. Checking this shot from Engadget, you can see that both the power cord and the Ethernet cable are not even hooked up. While I love that the “concept” is presented, I think there is a bit of time going before the AVA is controlled by the iPad (or Android tablet).

    UPDATE: in the BotJunkie video, Mark explains that the system is “head agnostic” – allowing for any tablet to be placed on the head of the mobile base. So, as a technology demonstration, I could see how this is not as important.

  2. Gaze is poorly matched. If you note on the photo to the right, the camera for the pilot to see from is currently below the iPad (which I suppose would be the “head” of the pilot). Thus, the system still suffers from the gaze issue – not ensuring an effective presence for the pilot or the participants.

CONCERN 3: 3D mapping system

While I can not speak to how effective the SLAM/mapping system is with a low-cost LIDAR, sonar, two PrimeSense components that the AVA has, it will be interesting since, from the photos, it seems as though the LIDAR (laser scanner) is positioned at the floor (see the dark components at the front of the AVA base).

LIDAR / Primesense position

LIDAR position? Scanning the floor?

One problem with the placement at that point is that you either get a straight-line measurement (of objects in the way) at a particular height. With the combination of the AVA sensor package, I will be quite interested in seeing how things work out for the AVA in creating an effective user experience for the AVA pilot.

UPDATE (1/14): I got an email telling me that one of the PrimeSense cameras is pointing at a 45-degree angle from the head (look at the neck and angle 45 away from the neck) toward the floor which gives a much better forward view of what is in front of the AVA. Much better to know the PrimeSense cameras are being used in an effective manner.

Other Things

Since the AVA is a “concept” robot, I could complain about the sound system (e.g., using the iPad’s anemic speakers) or no perceptible microphones should not be big issues to complain about. Additionally, as a pilot, I am not sure I would want other people changing my physical height by just a touch of a bumper. But, as I said, AVA is a “concept” robot technology demonstration, not a product yet.

See the video below (from BotJunkie) for more information:

Don’t you like anything on the AVA?

Actually, I love a number of things from the AVA. My favorites are:

  • The fast rotating head – the fact that head movement can better emulate our natural head movements excited me.
  • Extending neck – again, another one of the features I think are critical in establishing presence and intimacy with a particpant
  • Concept of SDK for developing robot apps – I love that iRobot is looking into that through the iPad and Android system – I will be quite curious how the development of APIs between these OSes and the iRobot OS comes about. As suggested in the MSNBC article, I think the goal for showing the AVA to the market at CES 2011 was to recruit some programmers that are closet robotists and convince them to get over the hump (which I love the idea).

So – what I take from iRobot’s entry into the space is:

  1. With Anybots and vGo getting a lionshare of the telepresence robots discussion, iRobot had to make sure it got some market visibility as well.
  2. Since their primary space seems to be military and vacuum cleaners, allowing their developers to explore other options is good for company/engineering morale (see Google and Facebook’s 20% time story). And, according to some lore, the telepresence robot was iRobot’s first product idea back when it started (but i have no solid confirmation of this).

UPDATE: in listening to the BotJunkie video, I must give credit iRobot with the fact that they wanted to use the AVA as a jumping off point for ideas. I truly understand how, when discussing robotic applications with individuals, it is not as easy as drawing wireframes for websites to visualize what is possible.

[Image Credits: all from Engadget article: iRobot AVA Chills With Us at CES]

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