TODAY’S most advanced videoconferencing equipment, installed in dedicated meeting rooms, delivers startlingly vivid images and sounds from afar. It can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to equip each room, however, and in most offices many fruitful meetings happen informally, in people’s offices or at the water-cooler. Now a new and radically different approach to videoconferencing is helping overcome both shortcomings. “Robotic telepresence”, as the technology is known, allows people to move virtually through a distant building by remotely controlling a wheeled robot equipped with a camera, microphone, loudspeaker and screen displaying live video of its pilot’s face.Telepresence robots cannot match the audio-visual fidelity of a good, large-screen videoconferencing installation, with its carefully calibrated lighting, eye-lines and audio. But the robots cost much less and are more flexible. They give their pilots the freedom to converse with anybody at the remote location—rolling over to the desk of a colleague, say, or accompanying a busy boss on her way to a meeting—rather than limiting communication to a specific time in a special room. Proponents of the technology say that by placing a remotely controlled embodiment of yourself in another location you can nurture your contacts, increase your influence and assert your authority.
Several start-ups are introducing new telepresence robots this year, and sales are growing as costs fall. RoboDynamics of Santa Monica, California, for example, has sold more than 100 of its $10,000 TiLR robots since 2008; its sleeker Luna model went on sale in January for $3,000, and its proposed 2015 model is expected to cost less than $1,000. Businesses commonly buy telepresence robots to inexpensively bring distant employees back “into the fold” at the office, says Fred Nikgohar, the company’s boss. Later this year a Pennsylvania start-up called Bossa Nova Robotics will start selling a 1.37-metre-tall telepresence “ballbot” called mObi that rolls around on a football-sized sphere, a design which enables it to weave through cluttered offices and turn on a dime.
Telepresence robots are not just for office workers, however. They also let homebuyers tour distant properties virtually, allow doctors to conduct bedside consultations from afar and provide a cheap way to patrol workplaces at night. Oculus, a robot used mostly for security patrols, is essentially a set of wheels for a laptop running Skype videoconferencing software which can be controlled using a smartphone. Made by Xaxxon Technologies, based in Vancouver, it costs $290. Some globe-trotting parents have even begun using robotic telepresence systems to stay in touch with their children at home.
Robotic-telepresence technology for hospitals is now so good “it’s like being at the bedside”, says Antonio Marttos, a doctor who uses robots to visit gunshot and bombing survivors in Brazil, Haiti, Iraq and elsewhere, from his base at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. But it’s expensive.
One model Dr Marttos uses, the RP-VITA, can cost $5,000 a month to rent. Even so, eagerness to get one spreads “like wildfire” after reports that a stroke victim or other patient would have died without it, says Michael Chan of InTouch Health, the robot’s California-based manufacturer, which has sold more than 700 of them. RP-VITA was co-developed with iRobot, a robot-maker based in Bedford, Massachusetts, and was cleared for use in American hospitals in January.
Brazil’s Olympic Organising Committee will put telepresence robots in operating rooms for the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro. João Grangeiro, the committee’s chief medical officer, says this means that doctors unable to accompany their athletes to the games will be able to advise Brazilian surgeons during operations.
Even sluggish regulators and hospital bureaucracies in eastern Europe and Russia now want the kit, partly because late-night visits from remote doctors keep tired staff focused, says Svetlana Karpova of Baltic Consilium, a consultancy to hospitals and health ministries that is based in Britain. Robots were virtually absent from Russian hospitals several months ago but will probably be in more than 30 of them by the end of this year, she says. They are also useful at hospitals in big, wealthy cities such as London, where emergency specialists sometimes get stuck in traffic and may not otherwise reach patients fast enough.
But the greatest commercial opportunity lies in boosting workplace productivity, says Tim Lenihan, head of strategy for Anybots, a manufacturer based in Santa Clara, California. Bosses can keep employees on their toes by embodying themselves in a robot to cast an unexpected eye around the office from home or the road, he says. To point to things, pilots can use a laser pointer mounted on the QB, the firm’s two-wheeled, ramp-climbing robot, which costs $9,700. (While moving, the QB balances by continuously rolling under its centre of gravity—like balancing a broom in the palm of your hand.)
Aside from cost, the main barrier to wider adoption, you might think, is that telepresence robots are begging to be kicked over from behind by disgruntled employees. In fact, a bigger problem is worries about security. Having a remote-controlled camera and microphone crawling around a financial institution or research laboratory, piping goodness knows what over the internet, raises understandable concerns with corporate-security types. Clinching sales for some of the roughly 70 QBs that Anybots has sold so far meant setting up firewalls to ensure the security of the data streaming to and from its robots.
Another worry is that some users may regard telepresence robots’ goofy appearance as undignified. The QB, for example, has a squat, two-wheeled base that supports a telescopic pole holding a roundish head with a small screen as its forehead. People keen to project their authority may think twice about manifesting themselves via an object that resembles a cartoonish stick figure.
Better to offload design work to Apple, says Dmitry Grishin, head of Mail.Ru, a Russian internet giant. Last year his investment vehicle, Grishin Robotics, put $250,000 into a start-up called Double Robotics, to develop a robot which cradles an iPad that serves as its brain and face. Consumers have already decided that iPads are beautiful, Mr Grishin says, and Double Robotics will benefit from continuous innovation by Apple and its legions of app developers. Based in Sunnyvale, California, Double Robotics sells its sleek, minimalist and lightweight “wheels for your iPad”, known as Double, for $1,999. The first production units were shipped to customers last month.
Engineers are still trying to determine the most conversation-friendly screen sizes for telepresence robots. Big screens create the eerie impression that a floating head is walking around, notes one manufacturer. Use small screens, however, and a feeling of shared presence may be replaced by a sensation of surveillance, says Sanford Dickert, an American robotics consultant. Small screens also handicap the person speaking through “a shrunken head”, he says.
Figuring out the best height and overall size for a robot is also tricky. Robots of medium height talk down to people sitting in chairs, but have to talk up to people who are standing. When using a robot that can adjust its height, such as the QB and Double, pilots may be tempted to tower inappropriately over their interlocutors. Thanks to sci-fi movies, people prefer robots they could overpower if something goes wrong, says Yeh-Liang Hsu, a designer of telepresence robots at Yuan Ze University in Chungli, Taiwan. He says heights of 70cm or less are best.
But some designers are thinking much smaller, and are designing mobile robotic cradles for smartphones, aimed at consumers. In December a start-up called Robotics Valley, based in Palo Alto, California, began manufacturing a $300 three-wheeled robot called Botiful. It can be remotely piloted as it darts around on a table or on the floor, carrying an Android-based smartphone as it goes, and streaming video via Skype. A future model will have sensors to stop the robot driving over the edge of a table or staircase.
This month a start-up called Romotive, based in Las Vegas, will begin shipping a similar iPhone-toting robot for $149. Anyone with an invitation from its owner and access to a web browser can virtually step inside the Romo, as it’s called, and control its diminutive, tanklike tracks to, say, manoeuvre around glasses on a bar counter for face time with distant friends.
Telepresence robots are gradually getting cleverer. Some, like the Oculus, automatically dock themselves to a nearby charging station when battery power is low. Others can synchronise themselves to users’ schedules, autonomously rolling into a given meeting at a particular time, for example. But the sensors needed for the robot to be able to navigate on its own can be expensive. The autonomous version of PeopleBot, a telepresence robot made by Adept Technology of Pleasanton, California, costs $32,000, in part because of the on-board infra-red and laser-mapping kit.
Talk of the devil
The next step for telepresence robots may be to give them limbs—not to manipulate distant objects, but to make the robots more expressive. The pilot’s arm movements are sensed using a motion-capture device such as the Microsoft Kinect, and then relayed to the distant robot. A forthcoming $300 stationary robot called Wobot, designed by Dr Hsu at Yuan Ze University, makes arm gestures to express its controller’s happiness, surprise or disgust.
A telepresence robot sheathed in rubbery skin is being sold to researchers by Japan’s Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International. Resembling an androgynous and legless child with short, handless arms, Telenoid, as it is called, is essentially a large humanoid phone. The idea is that lonely grandparents “feel the human presence” of relatives who speak through it while remotely moving its head and other body parts, says the project’s leader, Hiroshi Ishiguro. But this creepy robot is unlikely to catch on outside Japan, says Timo Kaerlein, a German researcher who studied Telenoid on a visit to Kyoto. One observer described it as a nightmarish, fetus-like “demon-spawn”. By comparison, having your disembodied boss drive up to your desk for a quick chat seems reassuringly normal.