February 23, 2011      

Anyone who’s watched the TV show Undercover Boss knows that heads of large companies can glean a lot by masquerading as one of the workers they manage. But robotic telepresence could be a more straightforward and open way of staying in touch with the corporate rank and file.

A robotic telepresence device is basically a wheeled platform of some kind with an eye-level video camera and monitor mounted on top. Controlling it is typically a little like controlling a character in a videogame. But, of course, as you sit before your desktop PC, game controller in hand, you’re navigating through an actual world, not a simulated reality. Once viewed as a way doctors could more efficiently visit patients, the technology has spread to business. “It’s Skype on a Segway,” is how one user described the experience to Bloomberg Businessweek.

Imagine yourself – or more precisely your avatar – skirting around the cubes of a branch office half a continent away, listening in on the meetings workers there attend, or chatting informally with a group in the office kitchen. Yes, it sounds a little weird. But any CEO willing to spend 20 minutes or so a day at one or more of the company’s far- flung locations would have a lot better handle on operations than one who made a formal visit a couple of times each year.

And that’s just one of the ways mobile telepresence could revolutionize how business gets done. Vgo, a Nashua, N.H., start-up that’s among several players in this nascent market, notes that its slender, white, wheeled device is ideal for remote project management or for troubleshooting a problem. The company Website claims, “Trials have demonstrated that a person using VGo commands more attention than even being there in person. With active presence, issues can be immediately addressed and decisions can be made faster.”

That’s understandable, given the novelty. But telepresence – specifically, its ability to put a person exactly where he or she needs to be – seems more useful than the six-figure, high-res video conferencing suites sold by Cisco and others. Vgo’s roving bots reportedly are priced around $5,000, plus a $1,200 maintenance contract, making them a relatively painless alternative to increasingly cost- and hassle-ridden travel.

Vgo isn’t alone in this space, of course. iRobot unveiled a deluxe tablet PC-controlled device at CES in January. Among other manufacturers, Paris-based Gostai markets several pricier varieties. At the other end of the spectrum, a company called Mantaro, located in Germantown, Md., markets its utilitarian-looking MantaroBot for $3,500.

Expect plenty more entrants if telepresence proves to be a “killer” robotic app, which means prices could descend to laptop levels. Popular Science recently wrote about a Google engineer who built a telepresence robot himself for about $500, so he and his finance could stay in touch.