Telepresence Robots

A few weeks ago, I got a call from my sister. “Hey bro,” she said. “Do you wanna be a robot for a few minutes?”

It was an unusual request, but of course I wanted to. Who wouldn’t?

Becoming a robot, it turned out, was a simple matter of installing the right smartphone app. While it was downloading, my sister explained that she was testing out a telepresence system she’d be managing at an upcoming conference. Made by Double Robotics, my “robot” was essentially a slimmed-down Segway -- a self-balancing broomstick with an iPad for a face.

Image Credit: Double Robotics

When I logged in, I saw a video feed like any Facetime call or video chat. But I also had a handful of on-screen controls with which I could drive my Double around, adjust the height of the iPad, and switch to the secondary down-facing camera to avoid running into things.

As I rolled from the living room into the kitchen, I was overcome with a sensation not unlike vertigo. Thanks to my robot avatar, I was suddenly in two places at once: my own apartment in Boulder, Colorado; and my sister’s apartment in Boston. I walked to my fridge to grab a drink with one hand, while the other piloted my Double down a hallway 2,000 miles away. Simultaneously navigating these non-overlapping physical spaces felt a bit like being cross-eyed.

But for those few glorious minutes, I was a robot, living in the future present. And I couldn’t stop giggling.

The event my sister was preparing for was not the only venue to offer telepresence bots for remote attendees in recent months. My experience was a lot like that of futurist Bryan Alexander, who used a Double to attend a conference in February; and that of Eliza Strickland, who attended last year’s FutureMed conference via a Beam Pro robot built by Suitable Technologies.

Telepresence Robots

Photo Credits - Left: Photo by FutureMed, Right: Bryan Alexander w/ Susan Brower, taken by Lisa Stephens

Moving the robots can be a bit clunky, and they can be stopped by such insurmountable obstacles as a stray extension cord or the lip of a doorway. On the Double, the iPad’s speakers are simply not strong enough to carry one’s voice into a noisy room (my sister had me testing out Bluetooth speakers to amplify the sound, which seemed to help). And both Alexander and Strickland found that in crowds, many people would miss the fact that the robot was a stand-in for a living human being and either ignore it or brush past it. But overall the experience is fun and fairly natural -- almost like being there in person.

On the other hand, these bots don’t come cheap. A Double will run you $2,500 plus the cost of an iPad, while a Beam Pro costs a whopping $16,000. To be fair, the Beam is a fully-integrated piece of hardware that includes a larger screen and built-in sound system with a more powerful speaker and noise-reducing microphone. It’s also slightly larger and more robust than the Double. But the basic technology is the same: both devices connect over wifi or the cellular network, sport about 8 hours of battery life, and have similar mobility limits.

Image Credit: Suitable Technologies

Telepresence bots seem well-suited to small, sedate settings like attending meetings -- having a robot avatar creates sense of independence and, well,presence that makes the video call feel more like a true “face-to-face” interaction. For conferences and other large, bustling events, so far they’re more of a novelty than a must-have. But it wouldn’t take much refining in the next generation of these robots for them to become the kind of service that venues and organizers are expected to provide.

To see Double in action, have a look at the video below.

Additional: Rovio, VGo, The Rolling Robot Will Connect You Now - NYTimes



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