Telepresence machines may soon become inexpensive enough for more everyday use, as a conduit for virtual visits among family and friends

The Rolling Robot Will Connect You Now


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,” Dr. Sharkey said. “Someone who lives five miles away might say: ‘Oh, I can’t be bothered. There’s something good on TV. She’ll be all right. I’ll look at her through the robot.’ ”

Yvette Pearson, an associate professor and chairwoman of the department of philosophy and religious studies at Old Dominion University, agreed with Dr. Sharkey. “The telepresence robots might justify in people’s minds visiting less frequently,” said Dr. Pearson, whose research includes robot ethics. “That is a disadvantage that many of us in the field are concerned about.”

Still, she said, it’s an advantage that a real person is in the loop: the visitor who operates the robot, and whose face is seen on the screen. “The robot is functioning as a mediator for human interaction, rather than a replacement,” she said.

If family members aren’t in visiting range, the machines may be valuable in helping the elderly and their children stay in touch, Dr. Sharkey said. The machines could offer an unobtrusive way for children to make sure, for example, that a parent’s medicines and other necessities are at hand. But, Dr. Sharkey also cautioned, the robots aren’t perfect replacements for human visitors. “They are not an adequate substitute for a living relative sharing your space and giving you a hug,” he said.

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 calledSuitable 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, Dr. 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. Religious institutions might have the robots on hand, for example, so homebound worshipers could attend services virtually from their homes and televisit with other congregants later. (Dr. Rogers has no commercial connections to any of the robot manufacturers.)

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 Dr. Charles Kemp, a professor and member of the Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machinesat Georgia Tech who works with students in the robotics Ph.D. program. The robots could help with tasks like folding laundry and dispensing medications, he said: “I see these telepresence robots as a step toward robots of the future that can serve 24/7, delivering personalized care.”

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,” Mr. Semonite said, “but the doctor can be anywhere.”

More than 100 VGo’s 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. Suitable Technologies, for example, makes the Beam Pro, a heavy-duty telepresence robot designed for corporations. (Prices start at $16,000.)

“Using robots rather than having everyone coming in for conferences — that’s a valid business purpose,” Mr. Tobe said.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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