Lower costs may expand use of rolling robots

New York TimesMarch 8, 2014 

A few years ago, the introduction of remote-controlled robots on wheels brought a new dimension to Internet video chats, keeping the conversation going as people moved from room to room. But their costliness has made them a rarity in real life. Now that is changing, and the robots are becoming inexpensive enough that they may soon have many practical uses.

The robots, known as telepresence machines, could serve as a conduit for virtual visits from family and friends to help older people live at home longer. Traveling business people could use them to show their faces – by way of a screen on the rolling robot – to colleagues at central headquarters or to read bedtime stories to their children from afar.

But it’s also possible that the machines could too easily replace the important emotional contact of actual visits, experts on technology ethics say.

Adult children who want to check up on an aging parent could dock a telepresence machine in his or her living room, then drive it from afar via their computer. The machine, which looks like a television on wheels, would beam live video back to the computer. And if the parent moved to the breakfast nook during the conversation, the machine could follow.

That sounds promising. And yet “you have to be slightly wary of what can happen with telepresence machines,” said Noel Sharkey, a professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield in England, who has written extensively about robots. “If you could use a remote-controlled robot to virtually visit your elderly mother, you could be less likely to get in the car and go over to see her,” Sharkey said.

Pricing is key

Wendy A. Rogers, a professor and director of the Human Factors and Aging Laboratory, which does research on human-robot interaction at the Georgia Institute of Technology, says the robots may prove to be welcome additions in the lives of the elderly. “In our research, older adults have been very open to having a robot in their homes,” she said. “I’m not saying that some people won’t see them as callous or invasive,” she added. “But in my experience, older adults have been far more receptive to the idea than stereotypes might lead you to believe.”

To make its brand known in the consumer marketplace, a company called Suitable Technologies is offering its Beam+ telepresence machine for what is – at least in the mobile robot world – the bargain-basement price of $995. The machines will be delivered starting this summer. When the sale ends, the cost will be $1,995.

The robots offer many possibilities, Rogers said, “especially if they cost $1,000 instead of $16,000,” the price of some other telepresence machines. “There is a lot of potential here for social communications that are critical for quality of life and well-being,” she said.

The robots could also provide other assistance for the elderly. “If you have inexpensive mobile robots in homes that people are already using, there’s the possibility that we can attach arms to them” one day, said Charles Kemp, a professor and member of the Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines at Georgia Tech, who works with students in the robotics doctoral program.

Hospitals and schools

While the Beam+ is aimed at consumers, another telepresence robot has been put to work by many hospitals, hospices and other health care institutions, said Ned Semonite, an executive at VGo Communications, maker of the robot. VGo machines have taken up residence at, among other places, Kaiser Permanente health care centers, where a traveling orthopedist might use one to check on a patient after a knee operation. “The patient is at Kaiser,” Semonite said, “but the doctor can be anywhere.”

More than 100 VGos are also in use in schools, operated from afar by students who are homebound because of an illness or sports injury, he said. Students can remotely drive the machine to attend classes, interact with classmates afterward and even pay virtual visits to the auditorium or gym. (But the robot can’t climb stairs.) The machine’s cost is $5,995, plus a subscription fee of about $100 a month.

Telepresence robots are also appearing in offices, said Frank Tobe, a robotics analyst and publisher of The Robot Report. Typically, they are placed at the primary business site, and so long as its floors are reasonably smooth – shag carpets are out – and decent Internet and internal connections are available, executives worldwide can check in from afar, driving the robot around the office, visiting colleagues and going to meetings.

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