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Robotic Telepresence 2014: State of the Industry

August 5, 2014 | Howard Lichtman


We are continuing the syndication of the stories in this year's issue of Telepresence Options Magazine with our annual "State-of-the-Industry" report on telepresence robotics. This year's report is by Andra Keay, the Managing Director of Silicon Robotics, who looks at everything from the large remote presence platforms like VGo and iRobot's Ava that are starting to self-navigate and the head-and-neck robots like Kubi that are "swivl-ing" iPads and tablets for a look around the room.

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Robotic Telepresence 2014: State of the Industry

By Andra Keay, Managing Director - Silicon Valley Robotics

VGo _student

The $5995 VGo is used in dozens of schools to help kids like Lyndon who can't attend due to medical issues.

A few years ago, Texai, Sheldon's proxy on an episode of the Big Bang Theory, made for a good punchline. These days, telepresence 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 mobile phone--emerging as a field with a wide range of functions and applications.


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.

Telepresence robotics is at an inflection point. Costs are dropping and market penetration of supporting technologies is increasing. The smart phone, tablet and rise of the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) movement has helped make visual collaboration technology affordable. 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 tradeoff 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, The Beam+ and its direct competitor, The $2499 Double (and most likely The Fellow when released), both require you to "add tablet."



The $149 Romo and the $299 Botiful use your smartphone as the video platform

One example of this increasing market stratification 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 mounts or tripods aimed at very diverse markets. The $499 Kubi from Revolve Robotics is for business meetings.

The $299 Swivl is for education and distance learning.

The process of finding 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 first targeted the grandparent market with Kubi. The 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 office leaving an active Kubi on their desk when working from home. An opportunity for telepresence robotics providers is to find these new adjacencies, like education, where there is a good balance of technology awareness, comfort and need.



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.

London's Tate Museum recently made headlines with the announcement of robot tours of the museum collections "after dark." The robots, equipped with spotlights, come out at night to offer a museum experience that feels like a clandestine visit, a heist of some kind. The idea was the award-winning brain child of The Workers digital design group, whose clients included the London Olympics.

The National Museum of Australia has taken a more traditional approach, in partnership with Australia's leading research agency, the CSIRO. The robot accompanies education staff through the galleries, taking remote visitors on a virtual tour of the museum. While the robot is guided by the museum staff, the panoramic-camera controls let visitors view what they choose. The presence of a human guide lets them ask questions as well. The 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 of distance."

National_Museum _Australia

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.

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 floor talking directly to exhibitors and attendees. That'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 makes the experience all the more personal and engaging. Large telepresence robots talking to humans can be even more persuasive.

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. Offices 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 offices, 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 after a brainstem stroke in 2001 left him a mute quadriplegic. But with a telepresence-robot, he can interact with the world. After regaining a small amount of movement in his head and one finger 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 personal robot like the PR2 lets Henry not only scratch himself but also deliver TEDX talks. Evans has regained more than presence or action, he's regained participation.

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.

iRobots _tablet_ app

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.

On the autonomous navigation front iRobot has recently made the Ava 500 generally available. This $69,500 next-generation bot can be sent to a remote office by touching the location on a digital map. The Ava will navigate itself to the location using collision avoidance to avoid humans and obstacles.

The scale of the telepresence and teleoperation axis can be defined 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. This 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.


The DaVinci Surgical System from Intuitive Surgical offers a glimpse into the degree of precision that remote teleoperation is capable of today.

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. The 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 offering unique blends of feedback and teleoperation features for an increasingly diverse set of uses.

About the Author


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 robotics.

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