August 04, 2013      

During Robotics Business Review?s recent webcast (August 1, 2013), we first broached the notion that the telepresence robot might well be a robotics Edsel.

Conventional wisdom not on our side

Some in the audience, a bit miffed at us for such an affrontry or maybe stunned by our show of blatant stupidity, quickly snapped back, chatting online to us that we must be loony because telepresence robots are selling, customers are buying. What?s with the Edsel comment? Are we crazy?

We also realize that we are looking down the media gun barrels of conventional wisdom. Forbes is out with Rise of The Telepresence Robots, ASME with Telepresence Robots Take Over, and BYTE with Attack of the Telepresence Robots!

robot chatting

Other big guns, like ABI Research for one, have sized the market?s next four years of growth: its research director, Peter Solis, saying recently, ?The global market for telepresence robots is projected to reach $13B by 2017.? That?s plenty big.

The VC and general investment communities seem also to realize a nice upside and heady ROI with telepresence robots because they are pouring millions into their development.

Additionally, manufacturers keep putting their own corporate treasures (e.g. iRobot) into building and selling ever-newer telepresence robots at prices that range from $1,500 for the MantaroBot “TeleMe” (from BYTE?s mobil telepresence robot price list) to an astounding $70,000 for iRobot?s Ava500, according to the Boston Herald, adding that the Ava500 machine can also be rented for around $2,000 per month.

And some of these machines have very legit customers like Microsoft, Mars, Splunk, Xtreme Labs and Evernote, to name a few. So yes, people are buying telepresence robots.

There?s a market, there?s a need; there are appropriate products available to fill that need; there are customers who are buying with real money; and therefore, an industry, like Forbes says, is on the rise.

Gulp! Maybe we are a bit daffy. Why are we so circumspect? Why an Edsel?

Common sense

Then again, we were looking at the situation quite rationally, we thought. Yes, telepresence robots are indeed selling, but that?s no claim to fame for their novelty and utility: even the Edsel sold 63,000 cars.

It was something that the co-inventor of the Kubi, Marcus Rosenthal, said that got us to stop and reconsider a few things about telepresence robots. Rosenthal?s simple insight was that ninety percent of the robot?s cost is in its mobility and that ninety percent of its value is in what it sees. That had a good common sense ring to it.

It caused us to step back from all the hype and hoopla that surrounds these machines and to take a more practical look at their form and function.

Thought #1:

If a $70,000 Ava500 has $63,000 of its cost buried into its mobility, then its telepresence tallies up to be $7,000. Whether mobility happens to be ninety percent, or eighty or even seventy-five percent of its cost, this big-ticket splash of cash on its mobility over its value?form over function?seems odd because this very mobility is so in question: all this expensive mobility has mobility problems.

The AP?s Terence Chea reports the machines are ?difficult to navigate or even get stuck if they venture into areas with poor Internet connectivity. Stairs can be lethal, and non-techies might find them too strange to use regularly.? And this mobility never means throw one in the back seat for a quick drive to another location; it?s a back-straining no-no except for the smaller, lightweight models.

Such office communications might be better served with Quasimodo running around all day holding up a large-screen tablet. Additionally, Quasimodo does a good job on stairs.

Thought #2:

And unless we?re way off base, most offices work only from nine to five each day, give or take a few late-day sessions thrown in every once in a while. That means that one of a robot?s true advantages, 24×7 untiring go-go-go on the job, is totally compromised, unless the office works three shifts each day. Highly unlikely. That, of course, means sixty-six percent downtime for an expensive machine, unless that?s how long it takes to recharge its battery.

Thought #3:

Then too, if a benefit of the telepresence robot is to unite far-flung workers with the office, don?t time zones then become an issue? For example, if I?m in Boston at Noon and want to meet up with a colleague via telepresence robot in Singapore, that?s a twelve-hour time difference. Communication via robot or no, one of us is going to be sleep deprived.

Even my colleagues in California will experience a three-hour difference between us. My Noon is their 9AM: they?re all chipper while I?m looking towards lunch. Do telepresence robots come with a stash of 5-Hour Energy?

Houston, we have a problem. When common sense starts to kick in and we look a little more closely at how we work and our workflows, the sheen on the telepresence robot gets a bit dulled up.

Don?t mess with Gene Roddenberry

But hasn?t Gene Roddenberry already trod this very ground some fifty-odd years ago with his Star Trek communicator? What are robots as mobile communicators doing here?

Haven?t the likes of the iPhone 5 and Galaxy S4 shown Roddenberry?s prescience to be on the money and that just maybe Smartphones and Apps?the heirs apparent to the Star Trek communicator?might be the right play in the telepresence space?

Especially now with Smartphones getting ever more Treked out with built-in video projectors, Google?s Chromecast and other HDMI dongles. It?s suddenly a two-way world everywhere.

Mobile telepresence may see its best days on someone?s wrist.

The Samsung Galaxy S7 coming soon?

No, it?s not here yet, but I can imagine what this Galaxy S7 MediMode of the future could do for me as I check into a hospital. I bet you can, too.

at the hospital

As I slide my insurance cards across the desk at hospital registration, an attendant snaps the S7 onto my wrist. Immediately the screen goes bright with the head nurse from 3West welcoming me. The attending physician also says hi.

They are friendly and supportive; already my anxiety over a few days in the hospital and my impending operation is easing a bit.

Even before I get to my room, I have friends. They tell me that Fred is coming to wheel me up to my room. They are looking forward to meeting me.

My S7 is my constant companion during my stay. There are Apps for everything: medical records to treatment plans to medication information to menus for my meals to insurance forms to phonecalls from friends to streaming movies and just about anything else I want or can imagine. Even my surgeon and anesthetist check in to chat for a while.

A small patch containing a feather-light and thin diagnostic sensor is under my S7. It constantly monitors my temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, even my sweat. The nearby nursing station can pay a video visit at any time.

All of my information is gathered in my personal healthcare database where the data is compared and analyzed with thousands of others who have undergone the same operation as I will. Potential issues might be spotted early.

The S7 is completely waterproof: I can shower with it. And when I leave the hospital, it comes home with me. It?s a friend for life. My Galaxy S7 MediMode Smartphone will be my constant companion until the S8 comes out.

Try all that with a telepresence robot

Better yet, if and when a telepresence robot did enter my hospital room, how do I know where it has been? Is it germ free? Does it have a chunk of bloody gauze stuck to its wheels? 39,000 people die each year in the U.S. from infections contracted while in a hospital. Is this robot a carrier?

Curiously as well, in an age when digital electronics is tending toward getting ever smaller for better utility, telepresence robotics seem to be doing the opposite.

Hopefully the telepresence robotics industry has taken a long, clear-eyed look at its situation and has come away with solutions.

If not, remember the Edsel