Is this all "pie-in-the-sky"? No - it's happening here and now!
As you may recall, a few weeks ago I wrote a column titled Rentable avatars that can attend conferences in your place (Click Here to see that column).
This was sparked by a reader who thought that it would be a good business proposition to have robot avatars standing by for rent. Suppose I wanted to attend a conference in London, for example, but my time and budget wouldn’t allow it. Instead, I could call an avatar rental company in London and ask them to drop one of their robots off at the conference – then I could control the robot over the Internet, seeing what it sees, hearing what it hears, and so forth. Also, attendees at the conference could see a screen showing my face and they could hear my voice, so we could converse with each other, and so forth.
Taken to its logical conclusion, of course, you might well see two robot avatars appearing to converse with each other, but let’s not go there just at the moment.
So I did a search on the web, and discovered that there are actually a few different types of these telepresence robots out there – some are in the research and development stage, some are in academia, and some are already available on the market and have been deployed in the real world.
One of the folks who commented on my original posting was Jeff Muller, who is a software architect at VGo Communications (www.vgocom.com). Jeff works from home a couple of days a week. On those occasions he uses a VGo telepresence robot to interact with the guys and gals back in the office.
The VGo is a 4-foot tall, small form-factor mobile robot that is designed to project the user's presence into a remote location using two-way audio and video. So a user like Jeff can be at home on his PC, while his VGo could be … well, anywhere, really. As you can imagine, a VGo provides a far richer interaction with other people than does a phone call or a stationary Webcam.
Now, to be honest, I have to say that initially I was a tad skeptical as to the usefulness of this sort of thing, but then I started to think about it some more. And the more I thought about it the more I came to realize just how advantageous this could be, even on a personal basis. When my son returns home from school in the afternoon, for example, communicating via a VGo would be much more engaging than our usual phone calls. Also, I could maneuver my VGo around the house to make sure he was doing his homework rather than watching television (plus it would facilitate my helping him with his homework).
And then I started thinking about my dear old mom in England, who will be 83 this year. Fortunately, my mother is in good health and she still has a razor-sharp mind (I often joke that her memory is so good she sometimes remembers things that haven’t happened yet). But when I call and she doesn’t answer the phone, I cannot help but worry. In these cases I often call my little brother, Andrew, who lives just a couple of miles away from mom. He will usually say something like “Oh, she’s popped over to France with a couple of friends to visit the Louvre – didn’t she tell you she was going?” (She probably did, but I probably wasn’t paying as much attention as I should … you know what it’s like when you are having a conversation with your mom … it’s usually a one-way street, so you tend to tune things out … I hope she doesn’t read this column [grin]).
The point is that if I had a VGo in her flat, I could visit with her for a few minutes each day, and if she didn’t answer the phone I could guide the VGo around the flat looking for her to make sure she was OK.
The more I thought about this the more enthused I became, so I contacted to the folks at VGo Communications to find out more. I ended up having a really interesting chat with Ned Semonite, Vice President of Product Management and Marketing.
Ned opened my eyes to all sorts of possibilities. Consider office use, for example. If you have a VGo in the office, then a remote colleague working from home could use it to attend meetings. Of course you can do this already via video conferencing, but what happens during the breaks when folks gather to chat in different parts of the room, or go for a wander to grab a coffee. With the VGo you can participate in these casual conversations and interactions.
Or consider a small business where someone in a leadership position is travelling a lot and his or her absence affects how the business is running. Of course that person can call in on the phone, but using a VGo would be much closer to “being there.”
I was amazed to discover that VGos are already being deployed all over the place. One example Ned gave me is in hospitals, where a doctor might not be able to attend every consultation. It’s not uncommon, for example, for a doctor to make his or her rounds in the hospital in the morning, and then head out to a remote office. Using a VGo allows them to sit in on follow-up meetings throughout the day as required.
Now this sparked something in me, because earlier this year my mom had to have an operation that was scheduled at the last minute, which meant I didn’t have time to fly over to be there with her. I called her on the phone in the hospital each day, of course, but if they had a VGo I would have happily rented time on it to “visit” with her.
Another example Ned gave is of kids who are too sick to go to school. Having a VGo allows them to attend classes remotely. More importantly, the fact that the VGo is mobile allows the kid a home or in the hospital to “hang out” with the other kids and have some level of human interaction. From top-to-bottom, the images below show a VGo in the classroom, a kid controlling a VGo from home, and a VGo roving around a school.
Is this all “pie-in-the-sky”? No – it’s happening here and now. There are a bunch of videos on the VGo site (Click Here to visit them). Below is one about a girl with severe allergies who uses a VGo to attend school.
And if you do a search on Google, you can find a bunch more references to this sort of thing, such as a school in Arkansas purchasing a VGo to help a sick student called Zachary Thomason (you can read articles on this by clicking Here and Here and Here).
With a $5,995 price tag, the VGo is probably out of reach for the majority of consumers at this time, but it’s a lot cheaper than its competitors, and – as we’ve already discussed – it’s already finding a lot of applications in the business and health sectors.
Meanwhile, the folks at VGo are planning on developing a variety of future models, with some lower-cost versions intended for home use. I for one cannot wait!
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Sadly I live in the UK, where venture capital funding and bank-loans for start-up companies are things that happen to people in other countries.
The other problem is that I just tried Googling for this idea, and found the Japanese have thought of at least the face-projection technology bit of it.
Still, the underlying idea of remote telepresence
robotic 'engineers' might be viable, especially for risky jobs like mining, or working on oil rigs.
I once proposed a 3-axis gimbal mounted full-body VR suit connected in a wireless force-feedback loop with a telepresence 'terminator'-style warrior robot.
The soldier (back in the barracks) would see and feel what the robot felt (including the direction of gravity), but without any risk of being shot.
Most of the software complexity for Asimo is to do with getting it to walk. With a telepresence robot and force-feedback you don't need any fancy software or intelligence on the robot so it becomes simple.
If the robot starts to fall, its gyros sense this change in orientation and radio it back, causing the soldiers's gimbal support to tilt forward. The soldier naturally reacts to this by putting his foot out to catch himself, and so therefore does the robot.
"...to project my face (as captured by my webcam and face-tracking software..." Now that is a very cool idea. I had envisioned a tablet or something, but a frosted glass projection could give a much better presence - especially if the glass was curved.
A nice start, but Engineers need hands to do work. Managers just need mouths. :-)
Using an Asimo robot remotely controlled by a VR helmet and gloves, would be much better as it would enable me to do 'real' work remotely rather than just to communicate.
As a case in point, I live in the UK, but there is a US company that would like me to do some hands-on work configuring some biotech automation machinery.
It doesn't take too many plane tickets, hotel bills and time wasted travelling to start to justify the rental cost of a 'proper' telepresence solution that can use a spanner or a soldering-iron.
The benefits to the environment of this reduction in travel should be obvious, and a compelling justification.
I envisage the day when I don't have to drive my petrol powered car for hours to go to the office, I just have breakfast and then log-on to the appropriate telepresence robot and start work.
If I need to be somewhere else to fix a problem then I can instantly "alt-tab" to a robot in a different location, to switch away from my electronics lab to work on a customer's machine in the USA or Japan or wherever I need to be next.
A nice touch would be to have the robot's face made from lightly frosted glass and use a pico-projector to project my face (as captured by my webcam and face-tracking software) onto the inner surface of the glass. This is much better than a flat LCD display. The robot's head would then have my face and be able to show my facial expressions.
This is an important psychological factor for communications.