In a Dec 2010 blog post I described a few robot projects currently in development including a telepresence robot from HeadThere of San Francisco.

After a bit of investigation, I’ve discovered that the telepresence market is ready to explode. Besides HeadThere, there are at least five other companies in the market already and probably more coming.

Using telepresence to attend meeting remotely

As I mentioned in the Dec 2010 blog post, it is easy to imagine that having a physical telepresence robot attend a meeting can potentially provide a much better experience for both the live attendees in the room and the remote attendee controlling the robot. However, the actual experience may not match the expectation. Tom Simonite tells us in Tech. Review Jan 2011 that the initial reaction is cute, but that it wears off quickly.

In the story and in the video below, Mr. Simonite describes how having colleagues laugh during a meeting because of a bad Internet connection is an embarrassing and  stressful experience. He says,

“In one meeting, as the audio connection faltered and my voice broke into digital static, I could see the annoyance spread on my colleagues’ faces. When the connection dropped entirely, I was embarrassed that my body had become their problem, stranded in the middle of the room. When I logged back in, I was being borne across the office in someone’s arms like a child.”


Laughing at the guy with a speech impediment. Video still from Tech. Review

Mr. Simonite was testing the Vgo, from Vgo Communications, but the problems he encountered would likely occur with any of the current generation of telepresence robots.

A less in-depth story appears in the New York Times Sep 2010. Science writer Nick Bilton used a Texai robot from Willow Garage to talk to coworkers. In general, they were uncomfortable dealing with him. And since the robot has no arms, is dependent on humans to open doors and press buttons for the elevator. An accompanying video shows how the Texai robot is successfully used at Mozilla.


Serious work after the initial novelty wears off. Video still from New York Times

Another entrant in the telepresence market is the QB from Anybot of Mountain View, CA. It’s website says the product will be begin shipping in fall 2010, though it is also still taking preorders.


QB joins a meeting. Video still from Anybot

A variety of telepresence robots, including the Vgo, Texai, and Anybot are described in the New York Times Sep 2010. The story includes a helpful chart comparing five different products.


Choose your telepresence robot. Image from New York Times

Using telepresence in the classroom

Another potential use of telepresence is to bring knowledge workers living in a low-labor-cost country to a high-cost country. A pilot project in South Korea will use 29  egg-shaped robots, each 1-meter tall, to teach English at elementary schools in the city of Daegu. As reported in AFP Dec 28, the Engkey robots will display a Caucasian face, but will be operated by English teachers living in the Philippines.


The Engkey avatar. Photo from AFP

There are a lot of possible configurations for telepresence robots. For instance, check out all the prototypes on display in a trade show booth sponsored by the Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute (ETRI) of South Korea.


The one on the far left almost looks real. Image from Discovery News