February 2, 2011

Vgo, the telerobot

Having one of those radical presentism moments. Via Singularity Hub; Aaron Saenz writes:
While we haven’t covered the Vgo robot in the past, it reminds me of several other telerobots we have seen, especially Anybot’s QB. Only Vgo is supposedly retailing for around $6000 (including ~$1200/year for the service contract), considerably less than the QB’s $15k price tag. Differences in maneuverability, reliability, and video quality may make the cost difference appropriate, but that’s not really my concern. Vgo is representative of the telerobotics market as a whole right now: reasonable run times (battery life is between 6-12 hours depending on upgrade options), Skype-level video quality, and compatible with standard WiFi. If you can afford the $6k (or $15k) price tag, you can probably have this setup in your home or office right now. In other words, this isn’t the technology of tomorrow, it’s here today and ready to go. Vgo launched sales in 2010 and has been marketing their product to a variety of applications, as you’ll see in the following video:

Not to sound cynical, but I’m guessing that Lyndon Baty’s use of Vgo is just another part of that marketing plan. I’m totally fine with that, by the way. Giving a child (and a school district) a reasonable solution for a terrible predicament is great. If it comes with a moderate price tag, so be it. So, while Lyndon’s personal story of perseverance and increasing freedom is exceptional, the underlying technological implications are pretty mundane: telepresence is gearing up to try to make a big splash in the market.

We’ve seen plenty of indications of this. South Korea is testing telerobots in their schools. They could have one of these devices in every kindergarten classroom by 2013. Researchers in Japan are experimenting with robots aimed towards emotional connections (with mixed results). As we said above, Anybots has their own platform on the market already. iRobot recently unveiled a prototype robotic platform that would transform any teleconference-enabled tablet computer into a telerobot. I’m guessing that in the next five years, one or more of these attempts at telerobotics is going to actually gain some traction and start moving some serious product.

Education may be a natural market. As we learned from Fred Nikgohar, head of telerobotics firm RoboDynamics, there are some big hurdles in other applications of telepresence robots. Offices value secrecy. Medical facilities worry about patient privacy. There’s a lot of bureaucracy standing in the way of widespread adoption of telerobotics. Schools have some of the same problems, but (to be perfectly honest) they also have sick kids who you can’t say no to. Or they’re run by governments who have nationalistic goals in science and technology (exemplified by South Korea). Get the price of telerobotics low enough, and we could see it expand into different niches of education including homeschooling, remote expert instructors (like the English tutors in South Korea), or online universities.
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In other telerobotics news, Anybots QB is now shipping.

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