The Knowledge Worker’s Next Must-Have Gadget: A Telepresence Robot

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attending a technical conference in different locations with a Double. That allows one of them to stay home and listen to talks and participate in meetings. The robot isn’t autonomous, though; it needs to be directed to where different sessions are, and it needs a handler to operate an elevator and get back to the hotel at the end of the day.

The mobility of the Double has also been useful in a reception for a group of customers, Borenstein says. “Just the ability to turn. I can turn and show which customer I’m paying attention to at a given moment and I can wander around the room and find customers who look like they need talking to,” he says.

Borenstein was able to give the Double a try because the cost was low enough to start experimenting with telepresence robots. Until recently, though, telepresence robots have been much more expensive.

Before developing its low-end robot, Suitable Technologies’ BeamPro costs a bit less than $17,000. The VGo robot is priced at about $7,000 a year. Santa Clara, CA-based Anybots, which has a telepresence robot that uses a small screen and two eye-like cameras, sells its device for $9,700.

Meanwhile, at the higher end is iRobot, which makes military robots and the Roomba vacuum cleaner. Earlier this year, it released the Ava 500 telepresence robot, which has a list price of $69,500. A telepresence robot developed for telemedicine with InTouch Health, called the RP-Vita, costs between $4,000 and $6,000 a month for the robot and accompanying service.

iRobot's first telepresence robot was designed for telemedicine.

iRobot’s first telepresence robot was designed for telemedicine.

These iRobot robots were designed specifically to provide telepresence features to Fortune 500 companies, not an individual software programmer in Minnesota, the company says. The robot can automatically build a map of an office, which means a person can reserve a robot and tell it where to go without having to remotely drive it through hallways. The video and audio of the Ava 500 robot, which was developed with Cisco, is high quality and it integrates with enterprise security and data encryption systems, says Yusef Saleh, the general manager of iRobot’s remote presence business unit.

IRobot has started selling both robots to large companies and, although it’s still early days, Sahel believes the market for telepresence robots will grow to billions of dollars. “We believe companies will deploy large numbers because it changes the way they operate,” he says. For example, an expert can visually inspect a factory floor or lab and, since telepresence robots can move through an office, remote people can have more spontaneous interactions than scheduled meetings.

It makes sense that there will be a wide range of features and prices in telepresence robots, just as there is in videoconferencing—everything from free Skype chats to high-quality corporate systems. In that way, telepresence robots are following a typical technology adoption curve, where products are first sold to big corporations and eventually become items that individuals can afford.

But the barriers to adoption for telepresence robots aren’t just technical and economic. In the case of robots, there are some cultural challenges as well. For telepresence to be productive, people need to feel comfortable with robots wheeling around offices. Also, people still need to figure out those situations where they are actually useful and not just a novelty.

Mimecast’s Borenstein thinks the list of items that telepresence robots are good at will grow over time. “The technology has gotten to the point that it’s affordable for most businesses,” he says. “But they’re all first-generation. In five years, they’ll all look hopelessly primitive.”

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