Telepresence robots attempt to move back into the spotlight

[This story from Robotics Business Review provides a status report on the challenges and potential of the telepresence robot market. See the original for several more pictures, links to 10 leading telepresence robot companies, and to sign up for the RBR Newsletter. –Matthew]

[Image: Credit: Ava Robotics]

Telepresence Robots Attempt to Move Back Into the Spotlight

High costs, end user difficulties, and poor audio/video have hampered the growth of telepresence robotics. Can new models and applications help grow the market beyond niche uses?

June 13, 2018
Keith Shaw

The public’s first exposure to telepresence robots likely came during a 2010 episode of The Big Bang Theory, when character Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) drives a robot to avoid catching germs from his friends and colleagues. The punchline was that Cooper was inside his bedroom one room away, not across the country like most users would be.

This should have been a watershed moment for the telepresence market – showing a mainstream audience the benefits of a mobile robot that could attend meetings in place of a worker being physically present. Almost eight years later, many people are still waiting to see more telepresence robots in their offices or homes.

Compared with robotics suppliers to the manufacturing, supply chain, and self-driving vehicles markets, telepresence robot companies have flown under the radar. Challenges including high costs, employee training, and public acceptance have slowed the market from growing to its potential, analysts said.

Waiting for the killer app

“The market seems to be in search of the right ‘killer application’ to bring the technology into mass adoption,” said Lian Jye Su, principal analyst at ABI Research. “There are certainly a lot more markets that are left untapped.”

The initial average cost for a mobile telepresence robot is between $8,000 and $10,000. In addition, vendors have had “difficulties trying to carve out a good value proposition for their products,” contributing to a slow-moving market, he said.

However, Su said the industry will slowly gain traction thanks to declining prices for parts and better messaging from vendors.

“The launch of BeamPro 2 by Suitable Technologies this year is an encouraging sign for the industry as a whole, as it signifies there is market acceptance for mobile telepresence robots targeted at the enterprise,” he explained. “We are also seeing more vertical focus messaging and branding from companies like OhmniLabs targeting the elderly care market and Blue Frog Robotics in the smart home market.”

ABI Research classifies telepresence robots as a subset of the global telepresence market. It has forecast growth from about 22,000 this year to about 50,000 units by 2023.

A 2017 report by market research firm Technavio predicted a 38% growth rate by 2021 for telepresence robots worldwide.

Su said companies that utilize a robots-as-a-service (RaaS) model will help lower the barrier to entry for many firms looking to implement telepresence robots.

Autonomy adds to ease of use

AVA Robotics, which earlier this year launched its newest model, is one such company using a RaaS model. The company has also added autonomy to its robot so end users won’t need to learn how to maneuver them around an office.

“Ease of use is critical in accelerating adoption,” said Youssef Saleh, founder and CEO of Ava Robotics. “We believe autonomous capability delivers the necessary user experience for both the remote user and local users.”

Saleh said the market will grow once there is a “successful delivery of the promise” that telepresence robot companies have made.

“We as an industry have not delivered on the simplicity and ease of use of telepresence robots for enterprise deployment and to the masses,” he said. “The vision for telepresence robots has always been to break down barriers of distance and bring everyone together as if they are sitting in the same office or facility and can walk up and interact naturally.”

In addition to problems around navigation, early telepresence robots had poor audio and video quality that were not adequate for enterprise-level communications, Saleh said.

“There is a need for enterprise-grade video collaboration solutions that move about a space, are very easy to use, and able to bring subject-matter experts or common workplace conversations to anyone, anywhere,” he added.

Moving telepresence robots perception beyond novelty

Jared Go, chief technology officer and co-founder of OhmniLabs, said he nderstands why telepresence robots are seen sometimes as a novelty, compared with other communication methods like videoconferencing on a phone or computer.

“But the whole reason we started OhmniLabs in this space is because we’ve seen some incredible value generated in certain use cases that stands heads and shoulders above using alternatives like iPads or other kinds of video chat,” he said..

In the case of OhmniLabs, the company is creating robots to serve the senior care market.

“The ability to bring family, caregivers, or physicians on site with appropriate tools in seconds creates tremendous value,” said Go. “These unstructured environments give a huge advantage to an all-in-one solution like a robot that can go around the home and interact anywhere instead of solutions that require fixed installations and added infrastructure.”

Go said changing the reputation of telepresence robots from a novelty to a necessity requires companies to tell better stories about the value of these robots.

“We have some stories of users that literally saved their parent’s life because Ohmni allowed them to cut through the uncertainty that happens when their mom or dad lives alone and isn’t picking up the phone,” said Go. “We have stories of users spending an hour or two hanging out watching a baseball game with Grandma every week and helping her figure out how to use the TV remote.”

“Moving the perception [needle] is about these kinds of stories spreading around the world, as well as better and more affordable products continuing to appear in the space,” he said.

To achieve this, OhmniLabs recently launched a new open-source developer’s kit that lets others create additional components for the Ohmni telepresence robots. Developers can build tools such as medical sensors, arms, and trays or baskets, adding value for that application.

Go added that OhmniLabs is focused on how telepresence robots can merge with other robotic applications and platforms in the future.

“I think the mistake of most telepresence companies is precisely in the name — limiting the robots to focus on only audio and video presence,” he said. “Part of presence is the capability to interact with the remote environment, and there are many more interesting ways than just seeing and hearing.”

Another possibility for telepresence is that it becomes a feature set for other robotics platforms. For example, telepresence features are being built into unmanned ground vehicles in the security space, as well as healthcare robots for telemedicine.

ABI Research’s Su said telepresence doesn’t fit into categories like industrial robots, commercial robotics, and consumer robotics because it is adopted in different verticals, which includes education, healthcare, manufacturing, and smart homes.

“If any of the commercial robotics companies start to acquire mobile telepresence robots, it will become a feature set for other categories instead of being its own separate category,” Su said.

Ava Robotics’ Saleh disagreed with the contention that telepresence needs to be added to other systems.

“Telepresence robots can and will succeed as a single application,” he said. “We envision a future where ‘teleporting’ robots are deployed around the world and enabling anyone to be teleported and participate as if they are there from their mobile devices from anywhere.”

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