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The future of telepresence robots

Telepresence robots are set for an active future, says Rob Lane.

Telepresence robots are set for an active future, says Rob Lane.

Telepresence – first mentioned as a term in a 1980 article by US cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky – has always been as much about science fiction as science fact. Indeed, Minsky himself attributed the development of the idea of telepresence to renowned sci-fi author Robert A Heinlein and his 1942 short story Waldo.

Originally published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine in August 1942 under the pseudonym Anson MacDonald, Waldo tells the story of Waldo Farthingwaite-Jones, a weakling who channels his intellect and family fortune to patent a device which allows him to control a powerful mechanical hand by the use of gloves and a harness. The Waldo F Jones Synchronous Reduplicating Pantograph is popularised as a Waldo in the story – and was later the nickname attributed to remote manipulators, possibly as early as 1945 when Central Research Labs was tasked with developing a radioactive manipulator for the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago.

In fact, Heinlein claimed an even earlier influence for his Waldos: a 1918 article in Popular Mechanics about a man with an autoimmune neuromuscular condition who “devised complicated lever arrangements to enable him to use what little strength he had”. Where this innovative chap drew his influence from we can only guess, but the idea of using technology to redefine one’s condition is clearly not a new one.

It is only relatively recently, of course, that telepresence has become increasingly associated with videoconferencing, with companies such as Double Robotics allowing us to remotely roam the corridors of our employer looking for the meeting room, while tucked up in bed with flu. At the same time we’ve seen a resurgence and popularisation of ‘gloved’ remote manipulation, partly as a result of science fiction novels and movies such as (you’ve guessed it!) Spielberg’s Minority Report. And while there’s clearly some overlap – it won’t be long before Oculus Rift and virtual glove users are shaking hands before a videoconference meeting kicks off! [NB: Ironically, a budget Oculus Telepresence Robot ‘laptop conversion kit’ – nothing to do with Oculus Rift – was developed in 2011.]

According to Double Robotics, its Double telepresence robot provides ‘a physical presence at work or school when you can’t be there in person’. Quite how the manufacturer expects any child attending a school where virtual robots of their peers are rolling between lessons not to ‘accidentally’ trip the avatars flat on their LCD faces is anyone’s guess; perhaps they’re developing an appropriate self-defence program! But, joking aside, having witnessed Double in action, I was very impressed. It had featured extensively during the season premiere of the fifth season of The Good Wife, but the show’s writers used it as light relief, showing it annoying the employees of Lockhart/Gardner (the out-takes are hilarious). In reality, Double is a clever telepresence solution that works very well indeed.

Comprising what looks like a dismantled motorised golf cart, with self-balancing tech, motorised-adjustable-height controls and a wide angled lens, the $2,500 Double requires you to also purchase an iPad (Air is recommended). Driver apps – allowing you to drive your virtual self anywhere in the world – are included, with travel case and charging dock extra.

OK, so perhaps Heinlein might have expected something more robotic than an iPad with a big wheel by now, but this move towards mobile telepresence videoconferencing is certainly a departure from the standard screen-in-the-boardroom solution, and genuinely allows you to move, remotely, from one meeting to the next, while stopping by the water cooler for a chat. And with robotics technology continuing to progress at pace, it surely won’t be long before our avatars are attending meetings clutching iPads rather than wearing them as our faces.

This brings us rather neatly to another fictional representation of telepresence – one that would make Heinlein and Spielberg proud. In 2005 Japanese movie-goers were treated to Hinokio (get it?), the story of a wheelchair-bound boy who communicates with the outside world via a robot. He attends school and – surprise – there is some human-on-robot bullying. Recently premiered at the 4th Annual Robot Film Festival in San Francisco, Hinokio illustrates some of the potential benefits and challenges of telepresence robotics.

Interestingly, this year’s festival awarded Best Telepresence movie to Robots in Alaska: The Making of Sugar Mountain, a narrative ski film showcasing ‘world-first’ drone tech by 3D Robotics. Perhaps we shouldn’t be limiting our telepresence avatars to movement via wheel or mechanical legs, but consider flying from meeting to meeting via drone. Now that would make Heinlein really proud