iRobot Sees Big Future in Remote Communications

Xconomy Boston — 

The company that made robotic vacuum cleaners a household phenomenon is ready to start tackling a decidedly different market: the doctor’s office.

iRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT), the maker of Roomba vacuums and other robotic products, is preparing for its new RP-VITA “telepresence” robot to start being used in healthcare settings following recent regulatory approval from the FDA.

If it catches on, the new machine could point the way toward a new class of in-home products from the Bedford, MA-based company.

The RP-VITA—developed along with another company, InTouch Health—combines flatscreen displays, high-resolution cameras, and smart navigation systems to give healthcare workers the ability to check out patients from afar.

So if a doctor isn’t available at a particular clinic to check out your symptoms, they still might be able to give you a good once-over and ask key diagnostic questions by firing up an iPad and maneuvering the robot to the bedside.

While various tech companies and hospitals have experimented with different telemedicine concepts for more than a decade, most efforts have failed. But iRobot is betting the time for the idea has come, as the broadband connections and video technology has improved at the same time hospitals have come under pressure to improve their operating efficiencies and cut costs.

When I talked with iRobot CEO Colin Angle about the news, he was actually using his new iPad Mini to control one of the RP-VITA robots at InTouch’s office (causing a confused InTouch employee to appear on the screen and ask why the thing had started wandering around).

“With about 10 minutes of training, you are navigating around the environment,” Angle says. “From about 10 feet away, I can zoom in and actually count the number of eyelashes on your eye.”

Angle says the InTouch sales force has “a multi-robot backlog” ready following the fresh FDA approval.

Last fall, Angle told us that the new RP-VITA robots—leasing for $4,000 to $6,000 a month—could start showing up in a material way on the company’s financial statements some time in 2013.

But iRobot also sees the RP-VITA as the start of a new, long-term opening in the robotics market for high-fidelity machines that connect people in different locations.

Previous “telepresence” robots have not been able to deliver high-quality voice and video, Angle says, making them limited to just a few “minutes of fun.”

“There’s a novelty in being able to do it at all, which is pretty cool. But the fidelity of the experience such that a doctor could actually make a diagnosis or an executive could actually feel like they were in the room where a meting was taking place has not been achieved,” he says. “And VITA changes this by doing a number of different things.”

On the back end, the new robot can take advantage of high-throughput, low-latency connections to deliver very high quality audio and video, Angle says: “I can read 12-point text from across the room.”

The robot itself is equipped with a zoom camera that can zoom in to a 30x magnification, as well as a wide-angle camera for use in navigating around a room. And the person on the controlling end simply downloads an iPad app to make the whole thing go.

It’s an important development for iRobot, which has seen recent softening in its military business—the company sells robots that can be used to comb for bombs, for example. And while iRobot’s consumer business has remained a driver of overall sales, the company is hoping that the new wave of remote communication robots will take things well beyond cleaning floors or gutters, as its current products do.

That’s part of the reason the company has partnered with InTouch to develop the RP-VITA, Angle says, pointing to that company’s handling of the medical industry sales for the joint project.

“iRobot’s interest in the medical domain has a lot more to do with learning the technological interface with doctors and nurses,” Angle says, “and ultimately, putting this technology into the home.”