We’ve always had a wary relationship with robots. Jack Williamson’s “With Folded Hands” is a terrific science fiction story of seemingly benevolent robots who take the meaning out of life by keeping humans from any harm, with Draconian means of enforcement. Is there some happy medium between machine tyrant and automated assembly-line worker where robots can help with our daily lives? The cute rug-vacuuming Roomba shows that machines can win us over if they’re done right, and now a new kind of robot is poised to expand our options.
Consider the Double, which is essentially an iPad mounted on what looks like a small, highly adjustable Segway. Like the Segway, it’s highly mobile, able to take tight turns and stop on a dime. The iPad mounted on its frame can be carried up to five feet in height or lowered to three feet six inches to stay level with people standing or sitting in the room it’s in. That’s important because the Double is a kind of avatar for the person controlling it over the Internet, a person who looks out through the iPad and has full freedom of movement to explore the setting.
Double, the work of California-based Double Robotics, has indeed produced a body double, one that’s capable of what’s called “remote telepresence.” This is not a robot that scuttles about doing tasks on its own, but a machine that moves at your every command, whether you’re in the next room or a continent away. Think of the Curiosity rover on Mars, which is manipulated by humans. For that matter, think of Fukushima, whose shattered nuclear reactors were explored by telepresence robots before it was safe for humans to enter them when the devastating earthquake and tsunami hit eastern Japan in 2011.
The Double, and similar telepresence robots like Anybots’ QB, take video conferencing through methods like Skype or GoToMeeting to an entirely different level. The QB has twin cameras that let you see what’s directly in front of your robot avatar and what’s down at wheel level, where you might run into it. You control the robot through keyboard commands, pushing the arrow keys to change direction. Its LCD screen can display your live video feed, so people who encounter the QB can see who’s driving it, and its speaker can carry your voice.
These robots are obviously suited to telecommuting – after all, a device that is an extension of your senses can walk around an office and attend meetings, doing everything but sipping coffee or eating bagels. Museums are interested in the technology because a robot operated by a remote expert could become a guide, without the need to fly in from Europe or Australia. What I like best are the possibilities in healthcare, where hospitalized children or aged adults in nursing facilities could have virtual visits from family members no matter where they’re located.
After a while, people would doubtless get used to a spindly, wheeled robot with a human face moving of its own accord around a workspace or retail shop, answering questions and providing directions as needed. We’re certainly going to have the chance to find out, as this small but vigorous market niche is growing. I see that VGo, a New Hampshire-based telepresence firm, has just landed a new round of funding to support its own work on mobile robots, targeting the healthcare industry with a pilot project to use robots to accompany nurses on their rounds.
Right now virtual robots like this range in price from the Double’s $2,500 to Anybots’ QB at about $10,000, and innovators are scrambling to see which markets are most likely to adopt the technology and what features they will need to provide. The day may not be long in coming before service personnel stationed overseas can attend family gatherings and tourist destinations may be explored by stay-at-homes with screen and keyboard. At the other end, imagine the new rules of etiquette we’ll evolve as we deal with the avatars of these people!
Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.