2013-07-25

Co.Labs

The Lessons From Telepresence On A Shoestring

Strap some JavaScript, a Raspberry Pi, and an iPad to a remote control car and your ingenuity can rival that in devices costing $10,000.



Telepresence is the coming thing, so we've heard and said pretty often by now, because though Marissa Mayer prefers her Yahoo developers developing code at the office instead of at home, telecommuting really does offer many advantages. There's one big barrier in the way of this revolution, however. It's the price of telepresence robots...which even at the low end can cost thousands of dollars. Unless, that is, you're an engineer at AppNeta. Then all you need is an iPad and a few tens of dollars' worth of maker hardware.

The robotic chap in the video below is the result of AppNeta's ingenuity. He's called Petbot:

The parts list for building Petbot starts expensively, with an iPad, but after you've included a Raspberry Pi computer and a simple radio controlled car, then the list is basically bits of wood and screws for mounting.

Despite its simple construction, the Petbot is almost as sophisticated as professional machines. The iPad is used for two-way teleconferencing via a traditional app, and the robot's movements around the office are controlled by the telecommuting employee via a web interface.

This is where the clever bit comes in, from a developer point of view. The Raspberry Pi was programmed to run a local node.js client server and commands are served up over the net via socket.io and a remote node.js server hosted at the telecommuter's end and controlled via a plain web interface. The simplicity of the setup and fact the robot is connected over fast Wi-fi, with its hardware listening as a client to user inputs, means there's very little latency. If you're so inclined then the project's shared over at GitHub.

As the video shows, the entire affair, while a little basic, certainly works. It's no iRobot or Anybot machine, and it lacks extras like environmental sensors to stop it from bumping into things. But the engineering team at AppNeta is already working on improvements.

And what's the lesson here? It's a good one: Don't overlook the opportunity to be creative on a shoestring. The results of some hardware tinkering and clever programming may surprise you, and even lead to some unexpectedly productive teamwork--perhaps even highly motivated because of the constraints of having such limited hardware to work with. As the AppNeta team notes on its webpage about the robot, "Our team has already started contributing code as well as some great suggestions. With a team of engineers to help perfect it, PETBOT will be thinking for itself in no time."

[Image: Flickr user John Karakatsanis]