Tuesday, September 11, 2012
Though the first one hasn’t even come off the production line yet, the makers of a new “telepresence” robot called the “Double” attracted more than $1 million worth of preorders within three weeks.

“It’s a Segway for your iPad,” quipped David Cann, founder and chief executive of Miami-based Double Robotics, at Y Combinator’s Demo Day in August, where he showed off the robot’s capabilities to investors.

Connecting an iPad to the Double turns it into a roving telepresence device. The first edition Double features an aluminum base, urethane and plastic wheels, custom control systems and iOS software that lets a user remotely drive the robot, video chat with those who it encounters, and peer into the spaces where it roams.

Cann found inspiration for the product and company name in the idea of sending a “body double” to inspect a factory, or attend a meeting when travel wasn’t possible, he said.

It works as long as Wi-Fi is available where the Double is stationed, along with a person willing to switch it on and allow the robot through the door to roam around.

One unit costs at least $1,999, not including the cost of the iPad required to sit on top of it remotely and the iPad needed for the user who is “driving” it from elsewhere.

At the time the product idea struck Cann, he was running a small toy company, Taptic Toys, and wanted to get a close look at the facilities owned by a prospective manufacturing partner in China, but didn’t have time to travel there.

Will the enthusiasm shown by Double’s eager early adopters prove short-lived? Is there a sustainable need for a “FaceTime on wheels”–as Double Robotics’ fans have called the company’s invention, alluding to Apple’s mobile video-chat application?