iRobot partners with InTouch Health to develop new generation of 'telepresence' robots that could help people with chronic diseases remain at home.
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The use of telemedicine in hospitals got another boost with the announcement that iRobot, maker of the Roomba and other kinds of "practical robots," will provide $6 million to InTouch Health and take a minority position in the company. The agreement builds on a joint development and licensing agreement the two firms made last summer to explore opportunities for using iRobot's devices in healthcare.
InTouch Health, which has FDA approval for its "telepresence" technology, already operates in over 80 hospitals around the world. Its inpatient product allows physicians to remotely operate a robot that can examine patients in the hospital. Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, for example, uses InTouch's platform to enable its neurologists to determine whether a patient in a community hospital is having a stroke and should receive a clot-busting medication.
iRobot, which had $465 million in revenues last year, makes robots for household, industrial, and military uses. The company has long been interested in the possibility of using robots to help people with chronic diseases live independently at home, an iRobot spokesman told InformationWeek Healthcare. iRobot views its partnership with InTouch as a step in that direction, he said.
InTouch will give iRobot entree to its hospital customers and will contribute its patents to new tools that the companies will create jointly, according to the announcement. "Working closely together, iRobot and InTouch will collaborate on a wide variety of technologies across each company's patent portfolio and leverage combined expertise in remote presence telemedicine solutions."
Colin Angle, chairman and CEO of iRobot, told InformationWeek Healthcare that, although InTouch Health's current robot is adequate in certain kinds of situations, iRobot can take the technology much further.
"InTouch focused on the technology of providing high-quality audio-video feeds from the robot back to the doctor, giving the doctor effective control over the robot with a joystick style interface," he said. "That's an effective interface for a certain class of doctors. But more sophisticated technology would make these robots easier to use by a broader class of physicians, not just the technological enthusiasts."
More advanced robots, he added, could "drive acceptance of remote presence in the hospital industry."
iRobot has an advanced robot called Eva, which Angle calls the "prototype" for the device that his company will develop with InTouch. "But since we made the agreement [in July], we've been working out the requirements for an FDA-approved, hospital-appropriate, combined system. Neither their system nor ours will closely resemble every detail we're coming up with. It will incorporate the best of both."
Once they crack the hospital market, Angle said, the companies will turn their attention to the much larger home-care arena. "If we have proven technologies that work in a hospital setting, we'll be looking at a cost-reduction exercise to translate that experience to the home." iRobot's experience in mass manufacturing of robots and the rapidly increasing power of microprocessors, he said, should make that a "realistic approach over time."
Angle said that a home healthcare robot made for consumers would not cost as much as robots used in hospitals or industry. One reason home robots would be affordable is the impact the mobile computing industry has had on robotics. "That accelerates what would normally be a decade-long evolution and compresses it remarkably."
For example, he noted, advances in mobile and gaming devices and apps have created mass-market access to voice and video over IP, touchscreen interfaces, voice recognition, facial recognition, computer vision, and gestural interfaces. "By focusing on technologies that exist in these other industries and marrying those with our navigation obstacle avoidance and mobility technologies, there's an exciting roadmap that takes software aspects developed for hospitals, puts them on a lower-priced platform made out of the components I've just described, and gets them to the home, not in 10 years, but on a much more accelerated time frame."
iRobot and InTouch Health won't have the field to themselves. Cisco also has developed a "telepresence" platform. But so far, at least, it does not offer robots.
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