Our World with Telepresence Robots: Interview with Jason Falconer from Plastic Pals

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Telepresence robots are on their way to becoming a norm in our society. People have already discovered how practical and efficient these robots are to communicate with coworkers, professors, students, hospital patients, and even friends. With developers constantly improving the technology and producing new robots, there will surely be an explosion of purchases, and subsequently newfound uses. We decided to get other robotics bloggers’ thoughts on the future of telepresence robots and how they will impact our society.

Our next few posts will feature a series of interviews with various bloggers and editors. Check back with us for the latest interview!

Jason Falconer, editor of PlasticPals, kicks off our series with his predictions and expectations for telepresence robots. As editor of Plastic Pals, Falconer has covered more than 500 robot projects over the past few years. In addition to writing about robots, he has won awards for his conceptual robot designs and has contributed design work to one of the teams applying to DARPA's upcoming humanoid robotics challenge.

Q: How quickly do you predict telepresence robots to be fully integrated into society? 

JF: I'm not sure that telepresence robots will ever become fully integrated into society in the way other forms of communication have. People are already well connected with mobile phones, which are relatively cheap, portable, and user-friendly. I expect telepresence usage to increase slowly in very specific domains (hospitals, clinics, schools, and businesses), where there is interest in this sort of application. But it isn't happening over night. 

Q: What industry do you see telepresence robots fitting into the best? 

JF: I think telemedicine has the biggest potential. I champion telemedicine because there are many areas of the world where trained doctors are in short supply, particularly in poor and developing nations. Telemedicine will allow a small number of doctors to interact with many more patients than they would be capable of seeing if they had to do so in person. Workers with less training can help patients on-site, and teleoperated surgical robots will allow doctors to perform less invasive operations. From a business perspective, standard teleconferencing requires that you set up a meeting with on-site staff at a specific time and limits you to a specific place (the meeting room with the teleconferencing equipment). If the goal is to get a broader understanding of daily operations, or to interact with the team, a mobile telepresence robot is a much better solution, because it allows you to visit different sections of a company. 

Q: What do you think the most common use for telepresence robots will be? 

JF: For sheer numbers, it may be K-12 schools. Every single school should have a few telepresence robots on standby, if and when students cannot attend in person. Most estimates suggest that in a few years most people, young and old, regardless of social class, will have access to mobile phones capable of running the robot's control software. When I was in grade school, I broke my right femur and was in traction for three months. Not only did I risk falling behind, but I sorely missed my classmates. If I had had the ability to attend classes through a robot, I would have gladly done so out of sheer boredom from being stuck at the hospital 24/7. We have already seen a couple of examples where this has allowed students to make friends and enjoy a form of interaction they would otherwise go without. Children's hospitals will have the necessary equipment to make distance learning easy and effortless for the kids. Higher education courses will increasingly be webcasted. You won't need to dish out for a telepresence robot or even tuition. Instead, you'll download video lectures for free that can be paused and repeated as necessary. But for K-12 I think two or three robots could be a good investment if they want to be on the cutting edge. In South Korea, they're investing heavily in telepresence robots for stuff like English lessons. They're more stringent when it comes to qualifications than Japan, for example, so there are fewer qualified teachers to go around. Someday, you'll have teachers volunteering time to schools in Africa that have been donated telepresence robots. 

Q: With the integration into people’s everyday lives, do you think telepresence robots with change social etiquette? 

JF: Not any more than mobile phones or the Internet. If anything, it may save what social etiquette we have left in telecommunications because telepresence is much more direct than your standard email. 

Q: What economic effects will increased telepresence robot usage cause? 

JF: As fossil fuels dwindle and prices rise, this will skew the cost-benefit ratio of business trips. Telepresence robots are one of the alternatives that large, multinational businesses can turn to in addition to standard telecommunications. On the downside, if telepresence robots really take off, the airline and hotel industries will inevitably suffer. More important than economic effects will be the environmental, health, and social benefits. With less travel comes less pollution, less energy use, less chance for infectious diseases to spread, less stress (no more redeye!), more time with family, and on and on. 

Q: What cultural effects do you foresee? 

JF: Telepresence robots are a byproduct of mobile phones, computers and the Internet, and robotics. But the robotics part of the equation isn't actually all that sophisticated or revolutionary. The majority of telepresence robots can be described as remote-controlled video phones. The cultural effects of mobile phones and the Internet are obviously enormous topics and still very much up for debate. 

Q: At this point, which telepresence robot do you think is the best one commercially available? 

JF: I should state up front that I have not had any direct experience with any of the current telepresence robots or their software. However, there really doesn't seem to be a clear winner or loser in terms of the basic technology. The industry is still very young. In terms of design, I think a good-size video screen is important. And it should be capable of moving over rough patches, like transitions from carpet to vinyl flooring without any trouble. Battery life, build quality, support, and price are all major factors. One thing I like about the AnyBots QB is that it is slim and lightweight. Someone on-site can pick it up and carry it if necessary, which could be useful if you need to continue a visit up some stairs. On the other hand, the VGo is cheaper and has already proven itself in some real-world scenarios. 

Q: Do you think the MH-2 that researchers in Japan recently developed will be widely used once it becomes available to consumers?

JF: I seriously doubt that the MH-2 or robots like it will become the norm. It's a neat idea and an interesting research project, but there is no reason to believe it will become anything more than that. While humanoid form factors allow for body language, the increased complexity is expensive and difficult to implement from a control perspective. Humanoid robots may eventually become used for telepresence, but there are more worthwhile applications to explore first.

Q: What feature would you like to see added to telepresence robots?

JF: The ability to climb stairs would be a major advantage. There are all kinds of wheeled robots out there that have inventive solutions to this problem that might be implemented without dramatically increasing the cost. The ability to interact with elevator buttons, or open a door, drawer, or cabinet, will likely require at least one arm and a simple manipulator. This is where things can get much more tricky to implement, and more expensive, so it's a bit of a double-edged sword.

Q: Overall, how do you see telepresence robots shaping our future?

JF: It is important to differentiate telepresence robots from robots that are teleoperated. I believe teleoperated robots will have a much larger impact than telepresence robots, because of their broader applications in space exploration, military and disaster response, and medicine. Telepresence robots will play an ancillary role to more widely adopted forms of communication like the Internet and mobile phones.

 

We thank Jason Falconer for his insights. You can read more of his work at PlasticPals.com. Check back for our next interview with Morgan Andrews from SimpleBotics!

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