Two of the most common complaints of successful business people are that they wish they could be in two places at once - and that it didn't cost so much time and money to travel. Robots allow business office executives to virtually be in two, or even several, places at once, and all without incurring travel costs. The newest term in the robotics industry is "telepresence" and it allows users to be present in multiple office locations, even on other continents.
According to WhatIs.com, "telepresence is a sophisticated form of robotic remote control in which a human operator has a sense of being on location so that the experience resembles virtual reality (VR). The remotely-controlled robot (or telechir) and the human operator can be up to hundreds of kilometers apart. Control and feedback are done by telemetry over wires, optical fibres, wireless links, or the internet.
In a telepresence system, the telechir is often a humanoid robot, also known as an android. The control station can consist of a full body suit that the user wears. Sensors detect, and transducers reproduce, sensations of vision and sound. In some systems, tactile sensing is also possible (this is called haptics). The user wears headgear with a display and headphones that reproduce scenes and sounds as they appear at the site of the telechir. Binocular machine vision allows a sense of depth. Binaural machine hearing facilitates the perception of sounds with a sense of loudness and direction. The telechir may have one or two arms with end effectors (grippers) resembling human hands. In haptic systems, the user wears data gloves."
Several Fortune 500 companies have already found many uses for telepresence units. For example, one company is using them to conduct consumer focus groups. The software company Autodesk has 20 telepresence suites around the globe, which has cut the necessity for travel by 16 percent over the last three years. Hospital neurologists can use the technology to remotely diagnose stroke patients in the emergency room. Manufacturing managers can remotely walk factory floors to inspect for quality control and to gather information for any needed repairs. Storage companies can use them for maintenance and security
An immersive room from Polycom can run from $200,000 to $600,000. The monthly service plan includes the cost of the extra bandwidth required for the superior HD visual and real-time communication capabilities. That monthly bill is equal to about 10 percent of the price of the equipment.
A telepresence robot generally costs less than the equipment required to set up an immersion suite. One of their advantages is that screens display videos of the face of the remote user. However, there are still only a few models currently available, and they are in high demand. Two companies that produce them are Anybots and VGo. VGo's model is just under $6,000 with a $100 per month service fee, and the first production run sold out very quickly. The Anybots model, even at $15,000 already has an order backlog.
Despite the cost, according to Wainhouse Research analysts, sales of immersive telepresence units have risen almost 60 percent in the last two years and total revenue for high-definition teleconferencing is expected to grow to $2.3 billion in 2015. ABI Research, in response to the results of a study, estimated a much higher figure and predicted that the global market for telepresence products would reach 13.1 billion by 2016.
To increase availability to businesses,technology companies like Cisco and Polycom are making "public telepresence" suites available for rent in hotels and executive suites all over the world. Customers can rent a room in a suite for $400 to $500 an hour. Each call requires both sending and receiving rooms. While it isn't cheap, compared to the cost of plane tickets and lost travel time, it can be a real cost-saving alternative.
For now, the semi-comical appearance of the robots is still a source of entertainment for many, so it may be a while before we utilize robots as receptionists. However, Pamela J. Hinds, an organizational science professor at Stanford University, was surprised by "… the extent to which they were anthropomorphized…" which means that most people, over time, come to view them as just another member of the team.
Photo credit: siraanamwong-freedigitalphotos