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1/11/2013
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Attack of the Telepresence Robots!

A handful of innovative high-tech startups have emerged to create a new market: remote telepresence robots. These are videoconference devices, most of which roam an office independently under the control of a remote worker. Not only can you videoconference with remote workers, you can be there — in a creepy way — and go where you want. In this story we look at MantaroBot "TeleMe," VGo Communications "VGo," Anybots "QB," Suitable Technologies "Beam" and Revolve Robotics "Kubi."

Devices: Bring Your Own Human!

The growing trend toward telecommuting and outsourcing has driven companies to seek ways for remote workers and teams to communicate and collaborate more efficiently and effectively. This need has inspired a handful of innovative high-tech startups to create a new market: remote telepresence robots.

Kubi
Kubi
(click to enlarge)
Although remote workers and contractors have depended on real-time audio/video communications tools for many years, including Skype, Facetime, Google Talk, and various dedicated video-conferencing equipment and service, nothing truly offered a "being there" — or better yet, "moving around there" — experience. What was lacking was the ability to work within the remote environment, chatting with managers and staff, attending both scheduled and spontaneous meetings, and solving problems encountered through those interactions.

Several remote telepresence robots have come to market over the past few years, and more are on the way. Shown below are drivable remote telepresence robots from MantaroBot, Vgo, Anybots, and Suitable Technology. A lower cost non-mobile desktop alternative from Revolve Robotics, known as the Kubi, is shown at the right.

If you're still having trouble envisioning how it works, see the YouTube demo videos further on in this article.


Meet your new officemate...
MantaroBot "TeleMe"VGo Communications "VGo"Anybots "QB"Suitable Technologies "Beam"
 
(click images to enlarge)
 


Alien encounters?

What's it like to encounter one of these robotic avatars wandering around your facility, and interact with it? "For all the newness of the Beam, locals often forget they are dealing with a person on an RPD, as opposed to in-person, in as little as 20 minutes," says Scott Hassan, CEO of Suitable Technologies.

According to Hassan, the Beam's design features a large LCD display and a minimum of "bells and whistles" that would tend to interfere with natural interactions. "As a result, meetings via Beam lose their novelty pretty quickly and both parties just get down to work."

The photos below show the Kubi, VGo, Beam, QB, and TeleMe telepresence devices participating in meetings, rolling down hallways, and interacting with coworkers in various work environments. My favorite is the last one, in which two Beams encounter each other in a hallway and pause for a chat.

(click images to enlarge)

(click images to enlarge)

How hard is it to remotely "drive" a telepresence robot? "Having some experience playing video games helps," says Hassan. "The interface for the Beam's remote pilot is very simple, and is picked up in a matter of minutes. Based, of course, on a limited sample size, those who are self-described gamers have been up and piloting the Beam in no time at all. The interface is very similar to a first-person shooter, but without the gun."

Next Page: Telepresence robot smackdown!

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