Building on the trend toward remote work, two companies started shipping wheeled telepresence robots to customers this year, and other versions are launching soon. While prices are steep and sales tepid, some early adopters find that the robots offer advantages over technologies such as videoconferencing.
Telepresence robots are wheeled machines steered by a person sitting at a remote computer; the bots take the person’s place around the conference table or, say, on a facility inspection. They are equipped with cameras, microphones, screens, and speakers so the human controller can interact with real people.
But using one of these robots is far harder than picking up a phone or using a video calling system. I tried one this year (see video below), to stand in for me at Technology Review’s main office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as I worked in San Francisco, and encountered a fairly steep learning curve. Piloting a robot, and contending with its sometimes poor hearing and limited vision, can make interacting with people a challenge.
Still, customers find them valuable, says Ned Semonite, VP for product management at VGo Communications, the New Hampshire-based company that sells the four-foot-tall robot I tried. Some engineers and designers enjoy being able to visit a distant lab or inspect a prototype without leaving the office, he says: “It means they can be there more often. You get the immediacy of walking in the door, and that valuable ad hoc contact.” More than 200 of the robots are in use so far, he says, and customers include companies such as Hewlett-Packard and Cisco.
The technology provides advantages over videoconferencing, Semonite adds, because “the person who is remote can choose what they want to see and go places beyond the meeting room.”
Telepresence robots are a better bet now that reliable Wi-Fi access has become standard in the workplace. And the 4G cellular data networks being rolled out by carriers will make them even more capable, says Semonite, whose company has been working with Verizon on a version with a built-in 4G connection. “It will make it possible for the robot to work reliably right out of the box, and to go into places like factories or warehouses that don’t always have Wi-Fi,” he says.