Take a robot. Chop off its head, discard the body, give it an extra-long neck, and stick an iPad where its face was.

Voilà: Now you have a Kubi telepresence bot.

Everyone wants to build and buy telepresence robots lately: semi-autonomous machines that allow remote workers and colleagues to chat face-to-face. DoubleRobotics has a sleek, sexy — and shippingreminds-you-of-a-Segway-but-better machine. Suitable technologies has a roughly similar, uglier, but more capable model, and for cheap fun, it’s hard to beat Romotive’s little iPhone-carrying Romo.

But Kubi has a different idea.

Kubi_designThe inspiration for Kubi was simple: Seeing development teams simply duct-taping a tablet to a wall. After exploring various existing tablet stands, cofoundrs Marcus Rosenthal and Ilya Polyakov decided that they mostly “look right up your nose.”

“We started out designing one of those mobile bots — being robotics guys, we thought it was cool,” Rosenthal told me via (of course) Kubi. “But then we thought about it practically: Most of the time in your meeting, you’re not moving around, so you’ve paid for this roaming capability you’re not even using. The real need is just looking around the room.”

So Rosenthal and Polyakov designed Kubi, a telepresence bot that costs “from one-fifth to even one-hundredth the cost” of other bots. Kubi has a flexible, rotating neck on which you place the head: any recent Android or iOS tablet. And then you plant Kubi wherever you want it — on a conference table, at your desk, in reception — and carry it around if you want to have mobile conversations.

The result is surprisingly interactive.

Marcus Rosenthal, via Kubi

Above: Marcus Rosenthal via Kubi.

Image Credit: John Koetsier

When I tried Kubi for the first time, I continued to have virtual meetings with Skype or Hangouts on my iPad Air. But I gave my colleagues and clients a web address where they could control what they see — a Kubi control page. By clicking around on the page, they effectively made my Kubi-app-equipped iPad control Kubi’s neck, enabling them to peer around my office, adjust the angle at which they were viewing me, or focus in on my computer screen.

And when I chatted with Polyakov and Rosenthal, I was able to focus on the speaker at any given moment. When they gave me a tour of their production facilities — a couple of desks at Lemnos Labs, a San Francisco-based hardware accelerator — I could spin their Kubi’s neck to take in the whole cluttered hardware hacker’s paradise.

“We target [small and medium-sized businesses],” Rosenthal says. “They want solutions for their four-to-10 person conference rooms and don’t have the budget for a video-conferencing solution that’s tens of thousands or more.”

In other words, they’re currently using laptops with built-in cameras. They could use a Suitable bot, but those start at around $16,000, although the company is apparently bringing out new options in the $2,000 range. Or they could use a Double from DoubleRobotics, which is also around the $2,000 range.

But, Polyakov says, not moving is a feature.

Ilya Polyakov

Above: Ilya Polyakov

Image Credit: John Koetsier

“The big thing that bothered us about telepresence was that it was unsuitable and unsafe at home, and in the office, it’s hard on WiFi,” Polyakov says. “Whenever Suitable does their demos at a tradeshow, they set up their own Wi-Fi infrastructure to ensure great reception … if there’s any latency, you’re going to drive into a wall.”

There’s no doubt that a remotely drivable robot for telepresence is cool. But it does come at a price — a much steeper price than the $500 Kubi. And I can see corporations such as Intel having second thoughts about a remote platform for viewing that could potentially be controlled — or even hacked — by anonymous outsiders. There are potential security implications.

The two founders have been smart not to try to create their own video platform. Kubi simply doesn’t care what videoconferencing solution you use: free or paid. They do have an upcoming integration with Blue Jeans Software, however, which makes using Kubi and controlling its view even simpler. With the new integration, viewers can change their perspective simply by clicking around in the video stream. Also coming: a built-in speaker for better volume in large conference rooms.

Not everything, of course, is simple.

Kubi started out in the $200 range, and now it’s $500. That’s partially due to high-quality injection molded parts and the current built-by-hand one at a time production process. Now, however, having shipped over 200 robots, the team is looking for high-speed contract manufacturers, as well as larger facilities for the team as they graduate from Lemnos Labs and move into their own facility next month.