Can't Make The Meeting? Send Your Robot Instead

Remotely piloted telepresence robots could be the beginning of another tech revolution. Some observers are already predicting that they will be the first robots to go mainstream. But it won't happen right away.

Though the robots themselves are still rare and exotic, the telepresence concept is very simple: basically Apple’s FaceTime videconferencing feature on a mobile, self-propelled, motorized platform. The idea is to make them cheap and easy-to-use stand-ins for people in school, office and other settings.

Today's typical telepresence robot has a display, video camera, microphone and speakers on a stalk attached to a two- or four-wheel platform. The devices are still severely limited in their abilities but are beginning to find homes in health care to stretch resources, in businesses to enable remote meetings and other interactions for telecommuters and in education.

In Seneca, N.Y., and Knox City, Texas, an elementary and a high school student are each using Vgo robots to attend classes and socialize with friends. Both suffer from rare diseases that prevent them from leaving their homes. They control their mechanical surrogates from a personal computer.

Prices Coming Down

Right now, most telepresence robots cost thousands of dollars, but manufacturers like MantaroBot and Double Robotics are trying to change that by leveraging existing consumer technologies. The companies are building robots that use an Android tablet or Apple iPad for the video conferencing functionality. Just like the more expensive models, a remote worker can attend meetings and move the robot from one conference room to another or "visit" with colleagues.

Despite using off-the-shelf technology, though, these devices still tend to be too expensive for consumers. The Vgo robots cost $5,000 each, while pre-orders of the slick looking Double Robotics product cost $2,000. (The price is scheduled to rise to $2,500 once the robot goes on sale in early 2013.)

At those prices, the products are likely consigned to a niche within the telepresence market that is expected to reach $13.1 billion worldwide by the end of 2016, according to ABI Research. To try to take mobile telepresence to the masses, entrepreneurs are turning to Kickstarter to raise money to build smartphone-toting robots that would cost just a couple of hundred dollars.

Telepresence Robots For $200?

Examples include Botiful, developed by roboticist Claire Delaunay of Silicon Valley, and Helios, invented by Tian Long Wang, an electrical and electronic engineer of Princeton, N.J. Both robots are essentially wheelbases with a smartphone cradle that can tilt up or down for better viewing.

While the entrepreneurs deserve credit for trying, these low-priced gadgets may not be successful in the mass market. That's because they do not offer much more than what a person can do holding a smartphone or tablet in their hand. The inventions are essentially novelties - with no real problem to fix. "It's not something that most people really need or really want," said Phil Solis, analyst for ABI Research. At this stage, cheap telepresence robots are more likely bought as fun Christmas gifts than for everyday use.

The Future

Nevertheless, these early devices will help build awareness of the use of robots in the home. Apart from the Roomba vacuum cleaners, the vast majority of robots today are found in factories, with the auto industry alone accounting for half of the products sold. That could change as aging baby boomers look to robots for assistance in order to remain independent in their homes when human helpers become too expensive. "It's an evolution," Solis predicted.

Eventually, telepresence could be incorporated into security robots that a homeowner could control while on vacation to check their house, rather than have multiple cameras fixed throughout the building, Solis says. While such robots have been used in commercial buildings and mansions, the introduction of new technologies could help drive prices low enough for the mass market.

In the short term, a few makers of telepresence robots will fill a niche, while others will come and go. But , someone will use the technology in something useful and inexpensive, and to the victor will go the spoils.