I’ve been upgrading Sparky ever since, as newer During the mid- to late
technologies have become available. Over the years,
the Sparky experience has developed into what I call 90s, Sparky became
Autonomous Telepresence, an experience combining remote sensing and locomotion, web video, social a party machine. What
networking, and human interaction. tech-savvy startup
It’s interesting to watch Sparky “work the room”
at an art opening or cocktail party. At first, people wouldn’t want a robot
are drawn to the robot as a techno-spectacle. But it’s remarkable how quickly people forget the at their launch party?
machine and interact with the remote person,
joking, flirting, or having long, deep conversations market and discovered that several Sparky-like
as if there were nothing unusual. So Sparky has devices were already for sale or soon to hit the
informed my sense of body, self, and identity, but it market, ranging from children’s toys to the
has also guided me toward insights and decisions in $100,000-plus hospital-bots that appear on ER.
an area I never expected. Given this commercial environment, I understood
The original Sparky had severe limitations, such that it would take a lot of effort to define Sparky
as bad audio quality and a broadcasting range of as unique, and then raise the venture capital to
just a few meters, but I improved its performance pursue designing, manufacturing, and protecting
over the years by swapping in new technologies, it as intellectual property.
including better audiovisual transmission compo- I wrote a business plan and met with potential
nents, radio control upgrades, and fresh batteries. investors to pursue Sparky’s commercial devel-
The biggest upgrade was the decision to leave opment. In the meantime, the Sparky upgrades
the old-school analog AV components behind and continued. In 2006, John Celenza and I built Sparky
make the leap to digital. Using the power of wi-fi 2 (see page 53), and I had a great time using it to
and the internet, Sparky became truly remote, telepresently cruise the exhibit floor at the first
enabling real-time chat and control from virtually Maker Faire. Sparky 2 also appeared on the History
anywhere in the world. Channel’s Modern Marvels as a possible “future of
During the mid- to late-90s tech boom in the the telephone,” and I demonstrated it at technology
San Francisco Bay Area, Sparky became a party and entertainment industry conferences.
machine. What tech-savvy startup wouldn’t want a I weighed the pros and cons of going commercial.
robot at their launch party? Sparky would mingle John and I could freeze development, treat Sparky’s
and schmooze for hours on a full battery charge, design as a trade secret, and attempt to “productize”
while I worked behind the curtain. it under the distraction and meddling of investors.
We made appearances at (and crashed) parties This did not sound fun or interesting to me.
for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San On the other hand, without investment, we could
Jose Museum of Art, Burning Man, the E3 Media keep experimenting, trying new video chat clients,
and Business Summit, Industrial Light and Magic, motor-control schemes, and other Sparky-relevant
Intel, and others. Sparky was even, briefly, the technologies as they improved and became cheaper.
singer and leader of a jazz quartet. We could bounce from one technology to the next,
adapting what worked for our one-of-a-kind creation,
and enjoying the journey free from investor
This offered a far more appealing path, and with
this insight, I realized two things:
One, I’m a maker first, and a business guy second.
Two, Sparky and Autonomous Telepresence are
not defined by hardware, software, or other technologies — which are changed and upgraded too
frequently. Instead, Sparky is defined by the unique
experience it offers, which has remained consistent
over its years of evolution: an opportunity to
To Productize or Not?
Back then, it seemed everyone was getting VC
funding for new tech businesses based purely on
speculation. Meanwhile, I had created a proven,
one-of-a-kind prototype that seemed to have
commercial potential. Sparky’s success in such
varied professional and social settings inspired
me to consider its potential in a wider range of
environments, from facilitating distance learning
to working as a museum tour guide.
I researched the nascent mobile telepresence