The Future of Remote Presence

The past year has had me reengage in my former love affair with robotics – or the potential that I believed in robotics back when I was a graduate student at Stanford. After nine months working at Willow Garage, I found myself reinvigorated with the potential robotics could bring to our lives – and especially the chance to create something more than a simple remote controlled car or an automated vacuum cleaner. Remote presence systems (RPS), of which Willow Garage’s Texai, Anybots’ QB, RoboDynamics’ TiLR, InTouch Health’s RP7i and Vgo Communication’s Vgo are collectively considered part of this potential marketspace (see the IEEE Spectrum article and the NYTimes article). While the “coolness” and/or novelty factor is high on these entries, in my capacity as a product manager, I think that a more focused breakdown of the market drivers and market forces should be discussed. In my humble opinion, the market of remote presence is not simply an engineering flash-in-the-pan but rather a powerful and promising future trend. In the coming articles, I will discuss the Future of Remote Presence, going into: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. What is Remote Presence? Why Remote Presence now? Advantages of Remote Presence Challenges of Remote Presence Requirements for Remote Presence One Proposed Solution for Remote Presence

I believe that a breakdown of what I have gleaned to be the major user requirements for the killer RPS product will help frame/form a debate amongst the players in this space. In the spirit of collaboration, of which open-source is a strong proponent (as well as Charlie O’Donnell), I hope this discussion will move remote presence systems forward to a bigger reality.

What is Remote Presence?
The concept of telepresence - being ability to project your presence via telecommunications technologies to another physical location - is a rather general way of describing remote presence systems. Due to Cisco’s considerable branding efforts, telepresence has become synonymous with high-end video conferencing solutions, not the more academic definition. In a more descriptive manner, Remote Presence Systems have a rich, two-way audio/video experience while allowing for full movement within a remote location, instead of a single point position within the remote location. Often connected to the concept of telerobotics, remote presence focuses on the richness of being present, not the complete ability to interact with everything in the remote location. Another synonym would be robotic telepresence, since the rich audio/video system is remotely managed by a powered system.

and wifi has become more and more necessary as corporations are expanding the skills of their workforce to be more flexible and transient. or some digital deliverable when the work effort is completed. as if they were physically present. Products like the Cisco Cuis. The influx of . At Willow Garage. the Willow Garage Texai offers the pilot (individual represented by the Texai) the freedom of movement within the remote physical space while allowing the participant(s) to interact directly with the pilot. Often the term “mobile telepresence” is used to describe remote presence systems. This sample video from Willow Garage has always been my go-to video to show what Remote Presence is. unlike the Rovio Wowwee and the iRobot Connectr. the Texai came about because of some positive happenstances. The market today defines tablet-like systems that are capable of being moved while engaging in the video conversation as mobile telepresence. FTP. and allow for more points of contact to be part of a video conference. Apple’s FaceTime on the iPhone and qik’s video chat solution on the HTC Evo are all examples of mobile telepresence. They are: Increased computing power at everyone’s fingertips – for less than $2K. To be clear. Ubiquity of wifi and large LAN pipes – Ethernet connections have always been around on corporate LANs. while the NY Times presented the different solutions for Remote Presence as new companies hitting the market today. Why Remote Presence now? Now. RPSes are not design to wholly replace video conferencing . video conferencing systems are often installations that have large video screens and camera solutions that are mounted in conference rooms or executive suites. More recently. and these happenstances are winding their way through corporate workspaces as well. smaller appliances have been developed to reduce the footprint of the video conferencing technologies. Robotists and other hardware fans have been building variations on this theme for some time. Increased work product fluidity – with the increased power at people’s fingertips. [Insert Texai video here] In contrast. Since the Texai has a mobile/motorized base that allows the pilot to change the Texai’s physical location. One of the earliest solutions was the PRoP (Personal Roving Presence) at UC California Berkeley in 1998 and even the Ivan Everywhere solution found on YouTube. I include these two as the precursors to the Remote Presence explosion since both solutions focused both on visual capability and the representation of the pilot in some fashion. but can follow along dynamically as the conversation/meeting requires it. Rarely is a business that does not use email. a corporate user can get a computer with a separate graphics card and incredible amounts of RAM to handle all of their program’s needs – and support high-definition video compression. the conversation does not need to be locked into a single location. work is becoming more and more digitized where deliverables are often emailed / transported to other people for use / operation. there have been a slew of RPS designs over the years.In the example to the right.rather RPS can be considered an augmentation the telepresence offerings to allow people to remove the barrier of distance from communicating and connecting.

Bringing about a remote presence technology was only a matter of time that someone would develop it. telecoms (in terms of optical transport and backhaul). Since we are all human. like CMS groups do with Drupal and Wordpress. the use of basic frameworks to enhance the development time and overcome the challenges of coding from scratch. I have not included the improvements in manufacturing. Traveling from Indiana to California was doable – but expensive and disruptive to his life. the cost of fuel and carbon contribution to the environment adds another tick in the box of costly use of our limited resources. Note the increasing use of work teams in common spaces or the drive to bring all people on a project/effort to a single place. the need for the human contact/collaboration is far-and-away the most powerful input to the success of a team. CNC milling machines or 3-D printers or the easy access to hardware manuals that were previously the purview of senior engineers with shelves of machine catalogs. We could include the story of the TEDsters who spontaneously had a TEDx event in London because of the volcano eruption. Cost and impact of travel – one of WG’s lead electrical engineers is living in Indiana and was not going to move back to California. Solid improvements on video compression – over the past ten years. when you coming the increasing business incentives: Increased competitive need for spontaneous collaboration – in our ever-competitive culture. And.temporary or part-time workers also require less infrastructure for dedicated seats. the loss of the work from their original locale would have to be far outweighed by the benefits of the time at the remote location. Environmental Impact – with every mile of air travel or car travel. And a number of people have. . logistics. with transit taking up time that could be used on productive work. He saw that the need to be present in the meetings was important since being present improved communication and impact. With a remote presence solution in their offices. Then tacking on the impact of jetlag and familial strains. these TEDsters could have continued with their work with minimal interruption. travel is not a positive contribution to performance – unless it provides either a major breakthrough or a tremendous sale. Projects like the Player/Stage Project and the Robotic Operating System at Willow are two examples of how frameworks allow for rapid development of prototypes and leveraging others successes in previous work. which downed air traffic for days. how much longer until we see rich high-definition motion video without jaggies and artifacts? Increasing use of frameworks to build software platforms – since the 90s. Discrete Cosine Transform encoded Microsoft Media player to the high-definition video seen from Skype and Logitech. video technology has gone beyond the 15 fps. collaboration and team building is part of the essence of what creates successful products and services. and more for JIT environments (see how co-working has taken off). Then. With the VP8 and the HTML5 video offerings being the next jumping off point.

the sales rep returns the RPS and closes the sale with the client.all from the seat of the conference center. the journalist had little choice in prioritizing his calendar to visit companies and product launches only within a specific distance of his home in Brooklyn and his office in Midtown Manhattan. As the client begins to dive into the outcomes of the software usage. but since he was the keynote speaker at the conference. the journalist was able to experience the launch first-hand and then talk with other people at the event . These are cases of experiences that happened with various RPSes in the marketplace. she connects with her RPS. she turns to the RPS company and declares her need for two of them – immediately. Senior manager at software development firm has a remote programmer in Bangalore who uses their video conferencing solution on a regular basis. After a few more minutes. And. simply using the home cable connection and wifi.one of the business development folk need to be at a conference along with being at his grandson’s birthday party. Maybe some stories can help explain these advantages: Grandpa needs to be at work and at home . able to look together with his coworkers on the desk of the manager to see the drawing of the UML flow for his part of the project and then backs away when the manager wants to speak directly with another staffer. Founder needs family time and to raise $250K . Instead of having to read someone else’s account of the new product launch. showing only a fraction of the number of uses an RPS could be used. He finds himself relying on people in the room to switch screens for him to see the presentation. he would naturally go to be with his grandson. Instead. When he logs into the RPS. he worked with the hotel in Utah to use the manager’s network and computer to give his speech from Utah via an RPS and then moved through the dinner speaking to others present at the event before he disconnected and then dashed off to swim with his wife and daughter. he set up an RPS at the house. but he was the keynote speaker at a large fundraiser that he was cohosting. The manager is so impressed.he had a family outing planned in Utah where there was limited access to major airports. . Instead of having to choose. he could not make both events at the same time. he finds himself face-to-face with his manager. Normally.the founder of a large company had a sudden conflict .forming a richer experience of the launch and the potential impact that could be made with the product. From his laptop. he finds his manager showing non-verbal responses that seem dismissive.given a small travel budget. Sales rep is on a call with a new client showing off the newest version of the software package they are selling. navigates to the display case and presents the physical result – without leaving the side of the client. since traveling time would not get him to the house in time. Journalist stays in Brooklyn while covering the launch of products in California . the sales rep remembers there is a display at the office showing off one of the results of using the software.Advantages of Remote Presence Remote Presence is a close cousin of telepresence / video conferencing if only for the fact that the telepresence solution is rendered mobile – removed from its static space on the wall or desk. While there. and then back to him. Users of the RPSes describe a sense of freedom and the sense of intimacy that comes from the freedom of movement. the senior scientist sees the client and the sales rep and begins talking to the client about the newest additions that are coming in the next release. he was able to spend time with his grandson and watch him blow out the candles .

Does RPS fit the marketplace? In the past year. Now. one with a large screen presenting the pilot). For example. Now combine the reduced cost for an RPS versus a standard video conferencing system (e.for each point of the installation Revamping or instituting a company-wide reservation system to handle space handoffs between two or more points across a corporation ● ● ● By this simple enumeration. These choices may not be as easy for the smaller firms who do not have such disposable capital or staffing resources.the interaction would be more natural.as a normal visitor might . but may have to go with less expensive/effective solutions. separate network connection) are often setup to ensure low latency (real-time interaction without delays) and to keep bandwidth-heavy video traffic from impacting normal users Cost of systems range from $10K to $250K+. large corporations make major capital and process decisions to bring about video conferencing. some vendors provide a video conferencing appliance. most corporations find: ● Physical space is often set aside for the video conferencing system . One becomes quite annoyed at the rather large desk component that is not being used as frequently as the smaller IBM laptop that is pushed to the side in this conversation. more engaging and less contrived.or becomes a contended space for people with VC needs and people with conference room needs ○ Desktop solutions (like the one shown below) can take up valuable desktop space or require workflow reconfiguring on the desk. outside of the large corporate customers who have access to larger capital expenditures. Usually. Additional network services (e. for high-quality. effective video conferencing. While this photo is an ideal one.g. and can offer a lower cost option.if the room is designed specifically for VC .g. . you can see the potential benefits. I challenge anyone to spend time with this setup. researching the video conferencing space demonstrated to me that there are a number of challenges facing the growth of the video conferencing market. depending on the quality and size of the installation . which resides on the desk of the user. if you remove the video conferencing client from this desk and allow for the RPS to sit/stand in front of the desk .

Remote presence physically fits in the workplace Note that all physical workplaces are designed for people to move around in. rather than being tethered to the camera position. the other offerings are in the $5 to $15K range. the requirement for a dedicated line more than likely is not necessary. almost all workplaces – whether the large corporate monstrosities that reside on the streets of New York or the small and medium sized businesses that are housed in some of the shared spaces or their own suites or homes – all are using some form of wireless Internet. unable to move from their position and having only a pan/tilt camera (and maybe zoom) to change their field of view. And current trends of increasing bandwidth to the workspace. can change their point-of-view much more readily in the same physical space. The only upgrades may be increasing office bandwidth and wifi routers to cover the space the RPS should go. Even the water cooler is designed for someone to stand near and get a drink from it. Next up – if the idea of Remote Presence is so valid. Remote presence does not necessarily need separate client hardware One of the benefits of the increased power to the desktop and laptop is the ability to support improved video and audio processing. Instead of having dedicated hardware to handle the processing. and the TCO of these systems will be on the order of managing a single PC. Total Cost of Ownership is significantly less than Telepresence While the highest priced RPS on the market today is rumored to be over $60K per device. Since every one of the RPSes are using wifi in one form or another. corporate bandwidth will easily handle increased traffic loads. the remote viewer is placed on a specific location. Remote presence provides active remote interaction. not passive viewing In most video conferencing situations. RPS allows the remote viewer to be in the same proximity as the other members of the conversation and. Since many of the interactions between coworkers are often at the person-to-person distance. like the other members. Additionally. average girth and average weight. As quantities and manufacturing increase. the price of these systems will drop to the range of high-end computers. why is it not in the marketplace already? What’s taking so long? . Remote presence can leverage existing infrastructure Right now. Look at your workplace – designed for people of average height. Remote presence systems are well suited to operate in this physical environment (with the exception of stairs – for now). most newer processors and their associated graphics cards can easily handle the processing power needed for high-definition audio/video. webcams are improving their performance (see the newest offering from Logitech for example) where the resolution and light management is greatly improved while the cost is dramatically decreasing. such a vantage point is more of a detachment than an inclusion factor.

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