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  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Tom Ryden, founder and COO of Vgo Communications, looks over a Vgo robot at the company's Nashua offices Thursday, January 20, 2011.

  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Tom Ryden, founder and COO of Vgo Communications controls a Vgo robot from his computer Thursday, January 20, 2011. Using a WIFI connection and a laptop, the robot operator can communicate from anywhere outside the office.

  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    The flash fires to take a still picture as Tom Ryden, founder and COO of Vgo Communications controls a robot from a computer in his office, while he appears on the robot's screen during a demonstration Thursday, January 20, 2011.

  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    A Vgo robot displays video of the controller during a demonstration at Vgo Communications.
  • Staff file photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    This January 2011 photo shows a VGo robot alongside Tom Ryden, co-founder of Vgo Communications. It was taken at the company's former headquarters; VGo now has facilities on Innovation Way off Spit Brook Road in Nashua.
  • Telegraph staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    A VGo robot displays video of the controller during a demonstration last year for a Telegraph story.
Wednesday, January 26, 2011

When only a robotic video presence will do

Considering what it builds, Vgo Communications has a pretty odd name. Shouldn’t it be Vgo Robotics?

Absolutely not, says co-founder Tim Root.

“We concentrated on building a good communication platform and making it mobile, rather than the other way around,” said Root, a Nashua native who graduated from Bishop Guertin High School in 1984.

Vgo makes what might be considered Skype on a super Roomba – a videophone-over-the-Internet system that can be driven around, controlled by a caller who dials in via his or her computer.

The idea, says Root, is to free business videoconferencing from the conference room, allowing it to occur “in the other 99 percent of the building,” as well as to provide a mobile telepresence that could be used in hospitals, schools and other settings.

This is an industry that doesn’t exist yet, and Vgo isn’t alone in pursuing it.

Just down the road in Amherst, MobileRobots sells a mobile system that it touts as the basis for “robot assistants, security robots, tour guides, robotic kiosks, tele-presence, and other people-sized applications.”

In Massachusetts, industry leader iRobot flirted with the “mobile tele-presence” years ago but hasn’t followed through – not yet, anyway.

Root thinks Vgo’s advantage is relatively low cost. Businesses can get a Vgo unit for $5,999, with a service contract costing about $100 a month. Root says this is inexpensive compared to other robots of the same level and gives the company a much wider range of applications.

As an example, he points to clean-room manufacturing, which requires workers to don booties, lab coats and even hair nets every time they enter. A Vgo would let them check back on tests, batch runs or other clean-room work from elsewhere in the building without having to go through all that hassle.

Or, he says, it could provide a bedside presence by a distant loved one in a hospital – something more interactive than a face on a laptop.

The maximum speed is about 2 1⁄ 2 feet per second, or roughly walking speed.

At the moment, a Vgo has little in the way of accessories, although it includes power plugs and serial ports to handle future attachments.

Ideas include items like a pill dispenser, to allow a health worker to remotely oversee medication for the sick or elderly, plus less serious suggestions.

Customers, the company says, have asked for a Nerf gun that can be controlled remotely, so they can shoot co-workers while talking to them.

For the time being, however, a more down-to-earth expansion of business-to-business videocasting, with employees and salesfolk on the road or working at home, is the core market.

‘Like a cat in the house’

Root’s background is in the technical side of videoconferencing, including a stint with industry pioneer PictureTel in Massachusetts.

There, he says, he realized the limitations of video communication tied to desktop computers or big screens stuck on a wall and began to wonder whether robotics could make a difference.

Vgo’s two other founders, Grinnell More and Tom Ryden, came from iRobot.

Vgo, backed by $10 million in venture capital funding, has been working on its robots for four years – Root put together his initial business plan in early 2007 – and last fall began selling production units. The company doesn’t release sales figures.

In its 5,000-square-foot offices on the second floor of a Simon Street industrial park, a dozen or more of the 4-foot-tall Vgos, which look like a cross between a parking meter and a classic Macintosh computer, whir quietly around the hallways.

They’ve been around long enough that at Afilon Consulting, whose office is adjacent to Vgo Communications, receptionist Joceyln DePrisco says they’ve become part of the environment.

“It’s like you have a cat in the house. At first it surprises you, but after a while you don’t notice it,” she said.

In fact, years of working with the units may be creating some identity confusion at Vgo. During a reporter’s visit, one staffer entered a room looking for a colleague. When he asked “Where’s Jim?” and was told Jim was working from home, he replied, “No, I mean, where’s his Vgo?” and charged off to find the unit so he could talk about work via the 5-inch screen.

Many technologies improving at once

Vgo is a classic case of a product becoming possible because of developments in a lot of disparate technologies, says Root.

That includes not just the evolution of cheap, robust robots, but also the development of widespread WiFi – the system needs speeds of about 768K, at the lower end of what is called broadband – and all sort of ancillary sensors and equipment, including an off-the-shelf, 2 megapixel videocamera.

“Ten years ago at PictureTel, we were making our own cameras,” Root commented.

Each Vgo is controlled from the caller’s computer via software that has to be downloaded and installed. You drive it with your mouse, via an on-screen control panel that’s largely “point and click.”

Vgo’s “head” has four microphones so the operator can hear what’s going on, a speaker so you can talk, and a bunch of lights, with a camera that can be pivoted up and down so you, for example, see what object on the ground caused your robot’s floor sensors to automatically turn on the brakes.

The operator’s face is shown on Vgo’s screen, unless they choose to hide themselves or display another picture when the Vgo is acting as a sales kiosk.

Root says the Vgo’s “form factor” is deliberately non-human to avoid the creepiness called the “unnatural valley,” in which robots are sort of human but not quite.

“We didn’t put any funky arms or googly eyes on it,” he said. “It doesn’t replace a human, it doesn’t pretend that it serves as a human. … It’s a very different function.”

Noisy, so it’s not a spy

On another note, Root says, the company decided against brushless motors for the driving wheels because they are silent, and it has the camera automatically close down when the caller signs off.

Both those moves were made to allay fears that Vgo could be used to spy on people.

Another major decision was the height of the “face.” It’s roughly at eye level for people in chairs.

This makes it slightly awkward to talk to a Vgo for any length of time standing up, but seated meetings are the business world’s most common videoconference format.

Further, if it had been much taller, a much larger, heavier base would have been needed for stability, which would have cut down on the battery life.

Ideas for future expansion include controllers that work through smart phones and different types of units for different jobs.

“As people get experience with the technology, the applications are going to come out,” predicted Root. “This has a long way to go.”

David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or