iRobot spinoff Ava Robotics comes out of stealth mode

The company has a deep robotics bench, but can it bring a pricey collaborative robot into the office?
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

Practical teleportation?

That's what Ava Robotics, a spinoff of iRobot focusing on collaborative mobile robots for everyday life, says its newly unveiled product offers.

The flagship robot, suitably named Ava, is a roving video conferencing machine designed to beam off-site workers into offices in a more embodied, collaborative way than dial-in or traditional video conferencing.

The company is picking up where iRobot left off with its original telepresence machine, the Ava 500. In 2013, iRobot rolled out the Ava 500 in partnership with Cisco, and for a while, it was considered the cream of the crop in a growing field of telepresence devices.

At $2500 per month, however, the relevance of the Ava 500 has waned with the arrival of cheaper options with similar feature sets.

The new Ava from Ava Robotics incorporates Cisco's Spark office collaboration suite, as well as room-mapping and autonomous capabilities that enable it to navigate offices, event spaces, and manufacturing floors more effectively than its predecessor.

"Ava was born from the realization that true connections and trust do not get formed around the conference table, rather during one-on-one's and through everyday work experiences," says CEO Youssef Saleh.

Read also: With Loomo, Segway takes robotics far from the home

It's a familiar pitch for telepresence technology. And I must say, after testing a handful of telepresence devices over the last couple years, I have gotten over my initial skepticism.

Being able to look around a room and move physically through an office space really does bring a tremendous advantage over a fixed camera.

The big question facing Ava Robotics is whether its robot's advanced sensor package and Cisco Spark integration will be enough to compete with far cheaper tablet-based devices.

Ava Robotics is using a "robot as a service" model, and the Ava will be available to companies for $1000 per month. That's a lot cheaper than the original Ava 500, but it's still a significant investment.

There's no enterprise option to buy the unit outright.

Meanwhile, firms like OhmniLabs, Suitable Technologies, and Double Robotics offer telepresence for around $2,000 out the door.

Robots from those companies are bare bones to be sure; the Double telepresence robot is little more than an iPad on a self-balancing base.

But that's plenty for most companies, and the cheaper robots do a great job fulfilling the promise of mobile video conferencing, which Saleh brings up.

iRobot has certainly proven deft at bringing robots to market. We'll be watching closely to see whether spinoff Ava Robotics will make telepresence a fixture in offices the way Roombas have become commonplace in homes.

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