Freshman Lyndon Baty's immune system is so fragile he can't risk being surrounded by people his own age, yet he attends classes at his high school in Knox City, Texas every day. All thanks to a robot. The Vgo telepresence platform is a four foot tall bot on wheels with a small screen, camera, speakers and microphone at the top. Baty logs into the robot remotely from his home, using his PC and a webcam to teleconference into his classes. Baty can drive Vgo around his school, switching between classes just like regular students. For a boy that has spent much of his life sick and isolated from his peers, Vgo not only represents a chance at a better education, it's also an opportunity for freedom and comradery. Learn more about his story in the local news segment video below. Lyndon Baty's circumstances may be far from typical, but stories like his are going to become much more common in the future as telepresence robotics makes its way into the mainstream.
Baty's situation is a rare combination of marketing, bad/good timing, and innovative thinking from school officials. The young man has polycystic kidney disease and recent treatments have left his immune system too damaged for him to attend school directly. Representatives from Vgo contacted the Knox City school district to offer their services. While attending school through a robot isn't quite the same as being there in person, you can tell from Lyndon's smile in the following video that Vgo is a more than welcome improvement in his life:
While we haven't covered the Vgo robot in the past, it reminds me of several other telerobots we have seen, especially Anybot's QB. Only Vgo is supposedly retailing for around $6000 (including ~$1200/year for the service contract), considerably less than the QB's $15k price tag. Differences in maneuverability, reliability, and video quality may make the cost difference appropriate, but that's not really my concern. Vgo is representative of the telerobotics market as a whole right now: reasonable run times (battery life is between 6-12 hours depending on upgrade options), Skype-level video quality, and compatible with standard WiFi. If you can afford the $6k (or $15k) price tag, you can probably have this setup in your home or office right now. In other words, this isn't the technology of tomorrow, it's here today and ready to go. Vgo launched sales in 2010 and has been marketing their product to a variety of applications, as you'll see in the following video:
(My apologies for the poor embedding of this video player.)
Not to sound cynical, but I'm guessing that Lyndon Baty's use of Vgo is just another part of that marketing plan. I'm totally fine with that, by the way. Giving a child (and a school district) a reasonable solution for a terrible predicament is great. If it comes with a moderate price tag, so be it. So, while Lyndon's personal story of perseverance and increasing freedom is exceptional, the underlying technological implications are pretty mundane: telepresence is gearing up to try to make a big splash in the market.
We've seen plenty of indications of this. South Korea is testing telerobots in their schools. They could have one of these devices in every kindergarten classroom by 2013. Researchers in Japan are experimenting with robots aimed towards emotional connections (with mixed results). As we said above, Anybots has their own platform on the market already. iRobot recently unveiled a prototype robotic platform that would transform any teleconference-enabled tablet computer into a telerobot. I'm guessing that in the next five years, one or more of these attempts at telerobotics is going to actually gain some traction and start moving some serious product.
Education may be a natural market. As we learned from Fred Nikgohar, head of telerobotics firm RoboDynamics, there are some big hurdles in other applications of telepresence robots. Offices value secrecy. Medical facilities worry about patient privacy. There's a lot of bureaucracy standing in the way of widespread adoption of telerobotics. Schools have some of the same problems, but (to be perfectly honest) they also have sick kids who you can't say no to. Or they're run by governments who have nationalistic goals in science and technology (exemplified by South Korea). Get the price of telerobotics low enough, and we could see it expand into different niches of education including homeschooling, remote expert instructors (like the English tutors in South Korea), or online universities.
I'm hoping that these early applications for telepresence will keep driving the price down. $15k is way too much for home use. Even $6k is an order of magnitude too large. Given that kind of option we'll always default to the $30 webcam and Skype video conferencing, even if it's not mobile.
But give us a $500 telerobot and things could change considerably. Remotely controlling a robot while talking to someone in a far off location is an amazing opportunity. I'd love to visit my distant family members every week if I could actually roll around and interact them in a more 'natural' way.
Hopefully Vgo and other telepresence companies will continue to gather momentum in the years ahead and push their products into the mainstream. If we can make them cheap enough, the benefits of telerobotics will sell themselves. The mobility that comes with a telerobot is something that sets it head and shoulders above video conferencing on a laptop. It transforms a restricting experience into a freeing one. Just ask Lyndon Baty.
*Special thanks to Frank Whittemore for helping research this article.
[screen capture credit: KFDX News]
[sources: Vgo, KFDX News]