Fatdoor is the kind of neighborhood social network that would work perfectly in a small, tech-friendly town like Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley. Founder Raj Abhyanker envisions a day when neighbors don't just send each other warning messages about crime, but also use rovers to deliver food or medicine to the townspeople and personal drones to film block parties or perform aerial formations.
Abhyanker's ambitious concept launched Tuesday in Palo Alto as a marriage of social networking and robotics. The social network part is easy: Fatdoor uses your verified home address and your phone's trusted location to let you broadcast messages to your neighborhood (or the neighborhood you're in at the time). The network is accessible on your desktop or on iOS and Android phones.
Your friendly neighborhood robots
The robotic elements set Fatdoor apart from other conventional networks. The Bot Appetit is a 3-foot-high rover that moves along sidewalks at a leisurely pace. The rover is connected to the Fatdoor social network and designed to be controlled by your smartphone using both Wi-Fi and 3G. Abhyanker wants cities to purchase Bot Appetits to be shared by the community. Its first use case: food delivery.
"By the end of the year we want Bot Appetit to be completely autonomous so people in Palo Alto can order and have food delivered," Abhyanker said. "It's kind of like an electric bike rack. Here we'd like to see a world where there are seven autonomous Bot Appetits that are shared by the whole neighborhood."
Abhyanker's vision extends farther than shared rovers--he dreams of a day when every resident owns a personal rover that they park next to their car in the garage. When you leave for work in the morning, your rover will go off to run your errands. But that's a long way off. I'm not sure Fatdoor's rovers and quadcopters would fly in any other town, but Palo Alto residents' reactions will serve as an interesting case study. Fatdoor is reaching out to other small, Palo Alto-like towns across the country to pilot the Bot Appetit.
Then there's the Skyteboard, a 3G-connected quadcopter equipped with two cameras so you can stream video to the Fatdoor network. Those aren't for sharing: Fatdoor launched a Kickstarter on Tuesday to raise $300,000, which will go toward producing and shipping the Skyteboards by winter. If you want your own, you can donate to Fatdoor's project or pony up $1,099 when the quadcopter goes on sale. Just don't call it a drone.
"IDEO created a product design that's friendly, it looks like a skateboard," Abhyanker said. "When it's flying in the sky it doesn't look like it's going to kill you, it looks like part of the neighborhood."
What people want
Talking to Abhyanker, I had to ask: What makes him think neighbors would want to use robots as part of their social networking habits? Part of his inspiration is a personal commitment to Fatdoor, which first launched as a neighborhood network in 2006. Abhyanker had to leave the company in 2008, and after Fatdoor evolved into a concept called The Dealmap, Google purchased it in 2011. Abhyanker went on to launch an intellectual property site called Trademarkia, but decided he wanted to relaunch his original concept--this time with robots.
"It seems like they're two isolated spheres: People who do aeronautics and robots are different from people who do social networks," Abhyanker said. "Being right here in the middle of Palo Alto, I decided to resurrect the company by merging skillsets of different disciplines to create something new. Robots are interesting but they're not useful. To make them useful, they have to be shared."
But do neighbors really want to share robots? Only Palo Alto residents get a chance to choose for now.