Telepresence robots were marketed as the ultimate way a remote person could be present somewhere miles away. Yet, during the pandemic-driven work-from-home revolution, we didn’t see mass adoption of these quirky iPad-on-a-stick robotic devices.
What Is a Telepresence Robot?
A telepresence robot is a device that can move around using remote control. It has onboard cameras and microphones so that the operator can feel like they are present in the place where the robot is. Telepresence robots are generally mobile as well, using self-balancing board technology.
Basically, if you attached an IPad to a selfie stick and glued that to a Segway, you’d have something close to a telepresence robot.
Can You Still Buy Telepresence Robots?
Even if you work for a large company, you’ve probably never seen anyone use a telepresence robot. So you may think that it’s a dead product category, but you’d be very wrong. Several companies are actively working on these robots, updating them, and selling them to businesses and individuals.
At the budget end of the market, there are telepresence robots such as the PadBot U1. This allows you to use any tablet computer that fits in the integrated holder, cutting down on the cost of the U1 itself, which comes in at around $800.
At the high-end of the market, you get the Ava Robotics telepresence robot, which has a price of “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.” The Ava has high levels of autonomy, so the user doesn’t really have to control every fine motion of the device.
Why Haven’t They Caught On?
The short answer is that telepresence robots haven’t caught in a big way because there’s almost always a cheaper and even better way of achieving the same thing. After all, if you can simply ask someone to press a button in their chat app to switch cameras, you’re 99% of the way there.
Telepresence robots make sense only when only one person is remoting into a physical space such as a board room. However, in that case, the mobility of a telepresence robot is of questionable value.
We also live in an age of wide-angle cameras, allowing for features like Apple Center Stage where machine vision and image processing software lets a stationary camera “look around” the scene, focusing on what’s important. Virtual Reality allows us to have embodied meetings using platforms such as VRChat. 360-degree cameras allow people to explore or view things like potential properties they want to buy.
The list of problems only these robots can solve is getting shorter by the day as other more practical gadgets take on more capabilities.
Do Telepresence Robots Still Have a Future?
While telepresence robots don’t make that much sense as remote work solutions, they still have quite a few use cases. For example, during the COVID 19 pandemic, these robots allowed people to visit their sick friends and relatives in hospital without exposing anyone to danger and without the need for the patient to do anything, like hold a phone.
These robots also have security use, allowing security personnel to monitor and communicate with the public without harming themselves.
There’s also a potential for technologies like VR and telerobotics to be combined. Imagine a telepresence robot with a 360-degree camera, controlled using a VR headset like the Meta Quest. So while telepresence robots aren’t likely to become the remote work hit they promised to be, there’s still a place for them in the mix of remote presence technologies that exist today.
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