Telepresence Robots in Business

December 2014
Original Source: Fast Company

Image Source: iRobot

Telepresence robots allow their users to remotely interact with and observe people and their surroundings without being physically present there themselves. Such robots have the potential to add mobility and adaptability to traditional modes of videoconferencing. Their use in the everyday activities of companies and in the realm of business travel is promising as an idea, but in practice it is, as yet, a technology which is at an early stage in its development, with advantages and disadvantages, as reflected by those who have tried it.

Salients

  • Positive Aspects
    • Brings down corporate travel costs
    • Does away with the fatigue occasioned by long journeys for work
    • Makes telework easier
    • Reduces CO2 emissions
    • Allows people unavoidably elsewhere to be virtually present at meetings/in the office
    • Has lots of future potential
       
  • Current Limitations
    • Quality of audio/video could be improved
    • Robots cannot manage doors, stairs, lifts, etc
    • Shows little capacity for spontaneous social interaction
    • Has short autonomous battery life
    • Is priced on the high side
    • Needs to be integrated with corporate security systems
    • Learning to pilot the robot is demanding and office conditions are not always ideal for it, what with obstacles, sloping floors, uneven WiFi signal, etc
       

Insights

  • Telepresence Robots for Multiple Purposes - The ability to be "virtually present" in another place than the one in which we are physically located is a science fiction fantasy fast becoming a reality that is finding applications in diverse professional, personal and social arenas. Different models and makes of telepresence robots are now to be found not only in offices and factories but in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, colleges, real estate agencies, museums, at trade fairs and other events, and, increasingly, in homes.

  • Presence, o.k., but not so Hot at the Socializing - Due to their limitations current models of these robots perform best in situations where they are only required "to be present" and not to interact socially with their human environment. But at conferences and business occasions where networking is the name of the game and conversations of interest can arise unexpectedly and informally anywhere at any time with anybody, the chances of the robot responding, improvising and capitalizing on such encounters are slim, and it shows nothing like the human ability to shape communication to suit the person and the circumstances.

  • A Wide Variety of Products - Telepresence robots are one of the robotics categories with the greatest diversity of products. Prices range from $150 for mobile desktop platforms that carry a smartphone, such as Romo or Swivl, to more than $69,000 for the sophisticated Ava-500 from iRobot which is capable of autonomous movement and incorporates Cisco video conferencing technology. In the mid-range, Suitable Technologies with Beam+, MantaroBot with Teleme or Double Robotics with Double, have got their prices below the $2,500 barrier by manufacturing models for general sale that are add-ons to the user’s own tablet. At the end of this year PadBot, the Chinese challenger from Inbot Technologies, is scheduled to go on sale. This telepresence robot, retailing at $499, is designed for professional and domestic applications. Its acceptance by the market could herald a more extensive uptake of telepresence robots.

  • Companies are Spending More and More on Business Travel - According to the US Travel Association, in 2013 business travelers in the US spent $105.4 billion to attend meetings, trade fairs and other events. According to the Global Business Travel Association, the costs of business trips have grown steadily in the last 15 years: by 60%, due to inflation, but by another 40% because companies are spending more on such travel. Data collected in the first half of 2014 shows that spending increased by 7.1% in the United States over the previous year, despite the actual number of trips having declined by 1%. This is because employees are making ever longer journeys away from their bases, and are taking advantage of being on the road to visit more cities and to work on more projects, thereby seeking to improve their productivity and their cost-effectiveness. Telepresence robots offer an alternative to be considered in cases where the travel involved for meetings or visits to branches is of a more routine nature. They can be used in factory inspection tours, for example, without the inspector having to be present on the ground.

  • More Flexible and Cheaper Videoconferencing - The videoconferencing market, of which Cisco and Polycom currently split 75% between them, experienced 5% growth worldwide in 2013, to reach $3.2 billion, according to data from Infonetics Research. But while companies are backing videoconferencing systems, the superior quality models and telepresence immersion rooms lost out on sales to less expensive and more flexible systems. Video phone sales doubled last year, with more than a million units sold. The fastest growing areas were in the Asia/ Pacific sphere and in the EMEA countries (Europe, the Middle East, Africa), which saw an increase of 8%, while in North America sales declined by 2%.

  • The Evolution of Telepresence Robots - At Nelmia we foresee a logical evolution of telepresence robots towards having improved technology, better manoeuvrability and a more convincing simulation of the human presence they transmit. In the technology field, it is to be hoped that there will be a better audio/video experience, while increasing battery power should allow more autonomy and less dependence on the wifi of the environment in which the robots find themselves. Future robots will be able to understand spoken orders and will have more sophisticated sensors, enabling them to function independently, thus freeing up the operator for other tasks. More dextrous tools, remotely controlled, will allow them to open doors and use elevators. Better functioning of their extremities, according to studies carried out by Tsukuba University in Japan, will increase opportunities for physical participation, overcome social inhibitions and provide a more satisfying overall communication experience for the users.

  • New Markets - The opportunity for designers and manufacturers of robots is in finding those areas where three essential elements come together: a clear need, a more relaxed attitude on the part of humans in the presence of robots and a certain level of skill in the manipulation of the technology by its users. In Nelmia we sense that there are many opportunities for using telepresence devices in sectors such as retail, customer services, education, healthcare, and in the home. In the next three years we will see use of telepresence robots becoming much more widespread. And there will undoubtedly be new creative applications for the technology, such as the night visits to the Tate Gallery of London last August which were mediated by robots roaming through the displays under remote guidance. Marvin Minsky, co-founder of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, and one of the pioneers in this area of research, predicted over thirty years ago: "If we start planning now, in the twenty-first century we could have an economy that will be entirely controlled remotely ".