“…I tell you, watch it closely! My guts tell me it is the next big thing; probably one of the unicorns of next year.”
I did not mean to eavesdrop, but when two of the most important Silicon Valley business angels talk casually on the green of the Palo Alto Golf Club you really hope to steal clues that could mean a lot for you business life.
“…just think about Uber, but without the cars. You hire PEOPLE that act as remote ‘robots’ for you. Did you see the movie Avatar? That very same thing, with the technology available today. I mean, with just their smartphone, you see?
What for? To ‘be everywhere’, as their claim says.
At first it seems odd, you think about the wave of sophisticated robots that Google’s Boston Dynamics is developing or the cute moving tablets of Beam…
but then you realize that there are a lot of people available all over the world that are inexpensive, already everywhere and much more sophisticated than any robot could ever be…”
At this point I was extremely curious even if I did not understand a world of what they where saying.
I took my airplane (as you know, the Palo Alto Hills golf club is very convenient since they have the airfield just a few yards away) and headed back to my place.
While I was flying over the sierras I was trying to imagine what ‘ubiatar’ could mean… obviously the ‘atar’ part was the end of the ‘avatar’ world. The ‘ubi’ part became clear when I went to their site: it is a latin world (ubiquitous) that means ‘to be everywhere’.
So this new startup wants to give to mankind the ‘power to be everywhere’ and they quote Star Trek a lot. The teleportation device has always been one of my favorite sci-fi technologies, even if , like Dr. McCoy, I would never enter one of those boots to be dematerialized and sent instantly somewhere else. I would never trust such a device; maybe you disappear and just a copy of yourself materializes on the other side, thinking he is really you, just arrived.
Since ubiatar seems not to claim they have any kind of scary quantum device, but just want to leverage existing technologies and good will, I think there is nothing uncanny there.
On the contrary, the idea is really smart. A kind of ‘back to the future’ trick.
The service is that of ‘telepresence’, where a person needing to be somewhere else for any number of reasons, instead of a long and/or costly trip could just not move at all and pilot/direct/move something that represents him on the remote place.
The smart idea is that, instead of complex or clumsy robots/webcams, with ubiatar he can just hire another human that is already on the place, directing him or her as his Avatar (his remote physical presence there).
With a real avatar (like in the movie) you could enter into the remote body that becomes your physical presence. That would be a little scary, mainly for the person who would rent his/her body to you.
Fortunately, the Avatar service with ubiatar does not involve a transfer of consciousness: you stay into your body and the Avatar into his body. Like a taxi (or even closer, Uber) does not let you drive the car, an ubiatar Avatar keeps full control of his own body.
The idea is that the Avatar you hire follows your direction and you can move him/her around with movement controls, aim the smartphone camera with other controls and also ask for any kind of action you would do with your own body. You see and hear everything through the Avatar’s smartphone camera and microphone.
The directions are issued graphically, with icons, so you and your Avatar do not even have to speak the same language.
That is the revolution: to ASK to another human to do what you would do in that remote place and let him/her execute all the minute movements that are needed. Instead of a dummy robot, you can have a human being carry out high-level tasks for you.
There is a patent on the user interface technology that allows the users (that they call usArs, maybe because it sounds more Avatar-ish) to issue the commands. Instead of spoken or written instructions (that you can always use, if you prefer) you can have specific icons appear on the screen of the smartphone of your Avatar. From an arrow to say ‘start walking’ to a minus sign to say ‘look to the left while you keep walking’ there is a set of control icons for any kind of operation.
The patent is mainly about ‘context-dependent icons’: a fancy way to say that not only the icon is important, but also the position where it appears on the video stream coming from your Avatar. For instance, if you click on a specific shop window in a street full of different shops and select the ‘watch’ icon, it means that you are asking your Avatar to move in front of THAT specific shop and wait for further commands.
If the Avatar needs to walk, turn, wait for a traffic light, avoid obstacles with a simple (but very high-level for any robot) path planning, you do not have to devise it and issue all the minute commands for all the movements needed. Since you are asking for an high-level result from a fellow human, you do not have to do all the work. Also, the Avatar has a better situation awareness because he is on place, while you from home could not be seeing important local issues. That is also why all other robots (like Beam) cannot walk outside of closed places.
So, is this something so new? Is it the next big thin?
All in all, videoconferencing systems have been around for many years. If nobody ever used them for such a service, something should have been missing.
I really believe now that putting a GUI layer on a videoconferencing system makes the difference.
I just thought about some of the uses, and you can see a lot more of them, especially when there will be a marketplace for the Avatars, where you can find somebody willing to BE you everywhere in the world:
- Remote tourism services (lets take a look to that remote place we probably will never travel to)
- Remote shopping (lets watch the shops in Paris and maybe buy a fancy bra)
- Remote industrial assistance (let the skills travel, not the bodies)
- Business travels (lets take a look to that factory in Shenzhen to decide immediately)
- Used cars sales (is that car ok for me? Let me see it before going to that other city where it is)
- Real estate (I would like to explore the house and the surroundings)
There are a lot of uses and every person I talk to comes out with another one.
A startup to watch closely, just as those investors in Palo Alto said.