Telepresence robots go airborne

[From New Scientist’s One Per Cent blog, where the post features a 1:17 minute video]

Telepresence robots go airborne

12 May 2011
Jim Giles, contributor, Vancouver, Canada

Picture the scene: your boss phones to say he is working from home. A calm descends over the office. Workers lean back in their chairs. Feet go up on desks – this shift is going to be pretty chilled.

Suddenly, a super-sized video feed of your boss, projected onto to the front of a helium-filled balloon equipped with a loudspeaker, floats silently into the room and starts issuing orders from above your head. Not such a good day.

This blimp-based boss, which brings to mind the all-seeing Big Brother of George Orwell’s 1984, is the creation of Tobita Hiroaki and colleagues at Sony Computer Science Laboratories in Tokyo. Its eerie quality hasn’t escaped Hiroaki – he says that his colleagues described the experience of talking to a metre-wide floating image of a co-worker as “very strange”.

The project does have some non-sinister applications. It’s part of a wider movement aimed at making “telepresence” possible. Imagine a medical specialist who can’t make it to a regional hospital, but needs to consult with a patient there. Or an academic expert who wants to deliver a lecture remotely. Telepresence researchers are working on technology that can get a representation of these people into the room. To put it another way: telepresence lets you be in two places at the same time.

Anybots, based in Mountain View, California, is already marketing a wheeled robot that can be operated over the internet. It features a head-height screen that displays video of the person controlling the device. It’s “your personal avatar”, according to the company’s marketing spiel.

The Anybot is impressive, but it suffers from what might be called the “Dalek problem“: it can’t handle stairs. Hiroaki’s blimp, which can be steered by small propellers mounted on a gondola below the balloon, can glide up stairs and float over desks. “There’s huge potential here,” he says.

The project is still an early stage, adds Hiroaki, who discussed his work yesterday at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. He and colleague have built a blimp and shown that it can be operated remotely. Now they have to do user studies – experiments that examine what it’s like to interact with the device. A blimp with a projection the size of a regular head might make the experience more enjoyable, notes Hiroaki.

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