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Telepresence Options Brief - Taking the MantaroBot TelePresence Robot Out For a Spin
October 23, 2011 | David S. Maldow, Esq.
Telepresence Options Brief is a new series of articles from Human Productivity Lab analyst and Telepresence Options associate editor David Maldow. To keep up with latest technologies and companies in telepresence and visual collaboration, David is constantly researching and interviewing market participants and will be sharing some of his conversations in this on-going series.
This Telepresence Options Brief was with Mantaro Product Development Services.The Mantaro team consists of highly degreed Electrical and Computer Science engineers. With expertise in hardware and software solutions Mantaro has developed various applications including telecom switching technology, medical devices, network management and diagnostic systems, and more. Learn more about Mantaro in this You Tube Video.
MantaroBot started as a "basement project" for the Mantaro team and has grown into a viable product. The concept is simple, run Skype on a remote controlled movable platform. However, Mantaro deserves more credit than that, because they implemented many design choices based upon the human factors of a face to face meeting. For example, both camera and monitor are mounted on a mast which is generally set at a reasonable height for a face to face experience with a standing person. Traditional desk height videoconferencing with standing people results in a slightly awkward experience for both sides of the conversation with unflattering camera angles. The motorized mast can be adjusted (lowered to seated height) by the robot user.
Jeremy Parsons, CEO of Mantaro, met with virtual-me over MantaroBot and gave me a quick tour of the office and lab. Jeremy sent me an email with the lightweight controller app and the MantaroBot user manual, which was all I needed to get up and running. Installation and configuration was straightforward and it only took a few minutes before I was ready for my first call. Upon logging into the client at my desktop, the remote MantaroBot initiated a Skype call to my existing Skype account. Once I answered the call I was in control of the bot. Initially, I was looking at myself, as the robot's docking station was facing a mirror. I then backed out of the docking station and turned around to see Jeremy.
The image above is an untouched screenshot from my test drive of the MantaroBot. An experienced videoconferencing vet such as myself should know better than to point the camera to a backlit source. But lighting issues aside, the Manataro video experience was indistinguishable from a typical Skype VC experience, while the height of the monitor and camera allowed me to have a natural face to face experience with Jeremy as he moved around the office.
The two way video of the MantaroBot solution should not be taking for granted. Many videoconferencing robot vendors have chosen to only have one way video, or to show the robot driver on a very small screen. Jeremy calls these devices "spybots" as they allow remote users to anonymously attend and view events. Having a decently sized (albeit not full sized) image of the remote participant's face not only serves to put people at ease by showing them who is controlling the bot, it helps the remote participant to feel like more of an equal in the meeting. It is one thing to control a remote camera and view meeting participants, it is another to smile at them and have them smile back.
The application's UI is very simple and easy to use. It serves three functions; moving the robot, controlling the camera, and providing stats such as latency and remaining battery power. It is important to note that MantaroBot users can turn and point the camera independently of the bot. This is another example of a human factor in effect. It would be unnatural and distracting to move the entire robot just to change views. Turning the camera to look around is clearly preferable, just as in a physical meeting one would turn their head rather than their entire body to look around.
There was a slight learning curve before I felt comfortable driving the MantaroBot. The controls require a light touch, it isn't a toy. The MantaroBot features some navigation aids in the form of infrared collision detection sensors, but I preferred to aim the camera downwards and rely on my own eyes to avoid bumping into anything. After a few minutes I learned to control my heavy hand and was able to easily navigate around the office and into Mantaro's lab.
At this point in the demo I developed a real appreciation for the potential of remote robotic presence. The ability to freely roam around a remote location adds an entirely new dimension to videoconferencing. In particular, I got to enjoy a tour of Mantaro's lab where I saw some amazing projects under development. While I may not be at liberty to discuss what I saw in there, I can say that as a tech lover I felt a little like the children who visited Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. If we had met over traditional Skype I would only have seen Jeremy's desktop and missed out on some really great stuff. To see the MantaroBot in action, please watch the following YouTube video.
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