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STATE OF THE
BY ANDRA KEAY
few years ago,
proxy on an
episode of the
Big Bang Teory, made for
a good punchline. Tese
robots do a whole
lot more than just
make us laugh. As
the number and
variety of such robots
continues to grow, it’s
a safe bet that telepresence
robotics is tracking the
same evolution as the
as a feld with a wide
range of functions and
Summer 2014 31
Telepresence robotics is at an infection point. Costs are dropping
and market penetration of supporting technologies is increasing.
Te smart phone, tablet and rise of the BYOD (Bring Your
Own Device) movement has helped make visual collaboration
technologies afordable. Many telepresence robot companies are
leveraging the ability of the consumer to provide devices that used
to be central but can now be considered peripheral. Just add a tablet
or smartphone and voila! You now have a telepresence solution
mounted on a telepresence robot, tripod or mobile mount.
However, there’s a tradeof here. Developers can reduce cost
by letting customers use their own devices, but that can lead
to headaches and development costs as they must adapt their
equipment to work with the growing range of available devices.
Suitable Technologies has just introduced a consumer-priced
telepresence robot at $1995 ($1495 pre-order) that includes the
screen as part of the device. Meanwhile, Te Beam+ and its direct
competitor, Te $2499 Double (and most likely Te Fellow when
released), both require you to “add tablet.”
One example of this increasing market stratifcation is the rise
of head/neck robots (as introduced in last year’s State of the
Industry). Alongside small mobile telepresence robots like Botiful
and Romotive are a stream of “life-casting” remote-operated robot
The $5995 VGo is used in dozens of schools to help kids like Lyndon who can’t attend due to medical issues.
The $69,500 Ava 500 from iRobot offers autonomous
navigation to drive itself to its destination, collision avoidance
to do it safely, a telescoping frame to interact with standing
or seated colleagues, and integrated Cisco TelePresence to
seamlessly plug into corporate video estates.
The $149 Romo and the $299 Botiful use your
smartphone as the video platform
mounts or tripods aimed at very diverse markets. Te $499
Kubi from Revolve Robotics is for business meetings. Te
$299 Swivl is for education and distance learning.
Te process of fnding the right niche can take a bit
of trial and error. Certainly some of the companies have
had to pivot over the last couple of years when initial
markets weren’t ready. For example, Revolve Robotics frst
targeted the grandparent market with Kubi. Te trouble
was the average grandparent wasn’t as comfortable or
interested in using a moving telepresence platform. Not
yet, at least. I suspect this dynamic will change as more
tech-savvy baby boomers age. Meanwhile, the current
strong growth of video conferencing in the enterprise led
them to untapped demand in business scenarios. A popular
application is users that usually work in an ofce leaving an active
Kubi on their desk when working from home. An opportunity for
telepresence robotics providers is to fnd these new adjacencies, like
education, where there is a good balance of technology awareness,
comfort and need.
London’s Tate Museum recently made headlines with the
announcement of robot tours of the museum collections
“afer dark.” Te robots, equipped with spotlights, come
out at night to ofer a museum experience that feels like
a clandestine visit, a heist of some kind. Te idea was the
award-winning brain child of Te Workers digital design
group, whose clients included the London Olympics.
Te National Museum of Australia has taken
a more traditional approach, in partnership
with Australia’s leading research agency, the
CSIRO. Te robot accompanies education staf
through the galleries, taking remote visitors on
a virtual tour of the museum. While the
robot is guided by the museum staf, the
panoramic-camera controls let visitors
view what they choose. Te presence
of a human guide lets them ask
questions as well. Te ultimate goal is
that all Australians with Internet—especially in rural
areas—should be able to access and experience the
widest range of national treasures, despite the “tyranny
Sometimes, particularly for temporary events, trade
shows, or exhibitions, it’s worth having several
telepresence robots around. Suitable Technologies
recently made 50 Beams available for rent at the
RoboBusiness2013 conference in Santa Clara.
Visitors from all over the world were able to stroll
around the expo foor talking directly to exhibitors
and attendees. Tat’s the kind of unique perspective a
telepresence robot can give to users.
You need to consider sociability and presence too. Phone and
video calls can achieve a certain amount of presence, but adding
physicality with even a small mobile robot or head/neck mount
The Kubi “head and neck” robot has found a calling
in allowing executives to work from home but still
be available to colleagues who drop by to chat.
The company has also developed a user interface
that allows remote users to login to a variety of
strategically positioned Kubis.
The National Museum of Australia’s telepresence robot lets participants use the panoramic camera to view what they want while the Tate Museum
in London’s upcoming program will let remote visitors wander the galleries unattended with spotlight-equipped robots at night.
Summer 2014 33
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makes the experience all the more personal and engaging.
Large telepresence robots talking to humans can be even more
Now we’re beginning to see robots talking to robots at conferences,
remote operators in various parts of the world meeting through
this new physical medium. Ofces around the world are replicating
this dynamic, remote workers having meaningful social or business
exchanges with colleagues by logging on to available robots
increasingly available in multiple ofces, cities and countries.
A lot of innovation and communication takes place at the
water cooler, and mobile telepresence can recapture these
natural interactions in our increasingly technologically
mediated global village.
Sometimes these natural interactions are something you
can’t experience without a robot. Henry Evans created
Robots4Humanity afer a brainstem stroke in 2001 lef him
a mute quadriplegic. But with a telepresence-
robot, he can interact with the world. Afer
regaining a small amount of movement in
his head and one fnger through intensive
rehabilitation, Evans connected with the team
at Willow Garage, one of the leading labs in the world
doing pure research on robotics, and asked for a robot
to help him in his daily life. He says the most important
thing to him is the independence of being able to scratch
a simple itch. Now a telepresence robot like the BEAM
lets Henry not only scratch himself but also deliver TEDX
talks. Evans has regained more than presence or action, he’s
Telepresence roboticists have added mobility to presence. Now the
next evolutionary steps are autonomous navigation and remote
manipulation. Making social interactions more intuitive, adding
smart guidance and automating procedures are bound to become
part of the complex plane of telerobotics.
On the autonomous navigation front iRobot has recently made
the Ava 500 generally available. Tis $69,500 next-generation bot
can be sent to a remote ofce by touching the location on a digital
map. Te Ava will navigate itself to the location using collision
avoidance to avoid humans and obstacles.
Te scale of the telepresence and teleoperation axis can be defned
by the amount of two-way communication happening. At one end,
you have broadcast only or passive reception. At the other end of
the scale you have two-way communication: you can both talk and
listen, or you can both touch and feel. Most devices only allow one
or two forms of interaction—you can talk and listen or move and
touch. Very few devices give you feedback across multiple modes
of presence. Tis is where the future lies.
In the social or business world, imagine the equivalent
of adding a handshake to the telepresence robotics
gestural repertoire. Or perhaps a pat on the back. If
forty percent of our communication is non-verbal body
language, there’s lots of room to improve telepresence
as we increase feedback and converge on teleoperation.
In the teleoperation space, feedback is a critical
component of the sort of sophisticated systems that let
us to do robotic surgery. Intuitive Surgical is one of
the companies providing a mediated-manipulation
experience where a surgeon is able to operate inside
the body by proxy of the machine guiding the tools.
Te surgeon is teleoperating, literally, and also able to receive
haptic feedback from the tools and operation.
Telerobotics will enable experts to guide distant, dangerous
or previously impossible operations in the real world. A blend
of guided and automated operation will generate entirely new
industries in the 21st century. Multiple new systems will emerge
ofering unique blends of feedback and teleoperation features for
an increasingly diverse set of uses. TPO
The iRobot’s tablet app lets you navigate to a remote location with the
push of a button or you can drive it yourself if you prefer.
The DaVinci Surgical System from Intuitive Surgical
offers a glimpse into the degree of precision that
remote teleoperation is capable of today.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Andra Keay is the Managing Director of Silicon Valley
Robotics, the industry group. She has degrees in
Human-Robot Culture and Communications, and
is the founder of Robot Launchpad, for startups,
and cofounder of Robot Garden, a new robotics
hackerspace. Andra is also a core member of
Robohub, the global site for news and views on
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