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What you need to know (good and bad) about 'telepresence robots'

Posting in Design

Who hasn't wished she wasn't in two places at once? I know I have, when facing a conflict between caring for a kid home with the stomach flu and attending an important work meeting. When Skype or even a fancy telepresence suite seem inappropriate for a remote conversation, new and relatively affordable types of so-called "telepresence robots" offer an alternative. So suggests a report, "Your alter ego on wheels," in the current print edition of The Economist, in the magazine's latest Technology Quarterly supplement.

The piece looks at both the advantages offered and problems introduced by these robots, which basically offer video conferencing on wheels. From companies such as RoboDynamics, Bossa Nova Robotics, Xaxxon Technologies, iRobot, Anybots, Romontive, and Grishin Robotics, these machines allow doctors, parents, managers, and other authorities monitor and interact with others from afar. They can do so by moving through hallways, hospitals, and boardrooms as they engage, rather than connecting via static screens and speakers.

First, a summary of the good:

- prices are dropping dramatically for these systems. The smallest, which offer roving systems for video calls placed on Android handsets and iPhones, now start for as little as $149

- anecdotal evidence shows that these telepresence robots can help in emergency health situations, allowing doctors stuck in traffic or located far from a disaster site to interact directly with patients in a possibly comforting, physical way

- more anecdotal evidence suggests that managers can have more of a palpable presence in a workplace and can easily monitor or interact with employees via roving robots

- some designs are "smart": they are programmed to seek power outlets when they run low on energy, for instance, or can be set to roll into a meeting room at a pre-scheduled time

And now, the potential hurdles:

- telepresence robots pose a security risk: moving, remote-controlled telepresence robots generally stream information online (think: video calls include images of the insides of research labs or financial institutions) that could possibly be vulnerable to interception by competitors

- some of these robots are small or cartoon-like in appearance, with large screens for heads and a "stick-figure" design, and potentially do not convey a sense of authority

- the video and audio quality so far do not usually match those of high-end telepresence video conferencing units

While the pros and cons are starting to add up and play off of one another, it's important to remember it's still early days for telepresence robots. As the cost of the technology used to make them continues to drop, and their designs get refined as more people use them and share their complaints, these machines are likely to get better. And, if indeed they get ever cheaper and better, perhaps their ubiquity is not too far off.

Image: topgold/Flickr

— By on March 12, 2013, 4:29 AM PST

Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure