Being two places at once with telepresence robots

A boy with life threatening allergies can now attend school like everyone else – staying safe at home while interacting with classmates through his telepresence robot on wheels! And, Devon Carrow’s grade two classmates in Seneca, New York, don’t think of him as a machine at all. They see him as just another classmate and think he’s smart and funny.

Devon controls his VGo robotic self from his home computer, manoeuvring it through the halls at school and focusing its camera eye on what’s happening in the classroom from his own desk in a pod of classmates. The robot has a small screen displaying Devon’s head and shoulders so students can watch him as he talks. If he knows the answer to a question, he flashes a light on his robot since it doesn’t have a hand to raise like other students.

"He's very attentive and he pays attention. He's a good listener," says teacher Dawn Voelker in a Buffalo News story on Devon. "It is not 'just a computer,' it is Devon. He's a student just like everyone else is."

The video part of Devon’s robot that lets him be two places at once - in class and at home - certainly isn’t new. Use of this type of telepresence technology has been increasing with businesses to save travel costs by linking employees or customers in distant locations together through a high-quality videoconference. New medical applications are emerging too such as specialist doctors consulting with patients in distant cities or remote areas with telepresence video.

Robotic telepresence sounds simpler than it is. The two-way video part is easy to provide by attaching a webcam, or even an iPad, to a robot and then setting it up to be controlled remotely by a computer. But the tricky part starts when you put the robot on wheels to try to give it the same mobility as a person.

Just imagine how hard it would be to manoeuvre a wheeled robot around corners while avoiding obstacles on the floor when you can only see what the robot’s camera is displaying on your computer screen. You also need to have a high-speed wireless or WiFi connection to keep the computer in control of the robot. If you roll into a dead zone like an elevator, your robot goes dead too!

But the technology is starting to find medical uses and market niches in business. Rosie the Robot is the first Canadian tele-robot to bring distant doctors to patient bedsides using video in the remote, northern community of Nain, Labrador, saving the high costs of transporting patients hundreds of miles just to talk face-to-face with a doctor. Watch a video of Rosie at work.

Rachel Emma Silverman, a Wall Street Journal reporter based in her home in Austin, Texas tried “botting” with a telepresence robot in the Journal’s newsroom in New York City. While some companies are hyping their telepresence robots as “just like being there” alternatives to meeting with colleagues in offices anywhere in the world, Rachel’s experience had some really funny moments. 

When a colleague tried to roll her to a place with stronger wirelessly connectivity, Rachel said, “the robot would thrash around, emitting an alarming, guttural noise that startled all in its vicinity.” Read Rachel’s story and watch a video of her robotic visit to the Journal offices in – My Life as a Telecommuting Robot.

Tele-robotics mash up careers

Tele-robotics relies on a mash up of several different technologies like communications, wireless networking, software programming and robotics. The many uses and advancements of tele-robotics will continue to spread with its benefits mashing up with such fields as medicine, search and rescue of disaster victims, the military and business.

To learn more about educational courses and programs that will be important to advancements in tele-robotics read these CareerMash profiles:

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