In the third part of our telepresence robots review we will talk about a project soon to make it into production, in the form of a very cost-effective robot you can employ with your iPhone, a soon to be released telepresence solution from a Willow Garage subsidiary, and a telepresence robot from India, which seems to be a very interesting product at first glance. For more information you can also check out part 1 and part 2 of our review.
VGo Robotic Telepresence Solution
The first robot in today’s lineup is the VGo robot, a relatively popular product. Developed by VGo Communications, a company founded in 2007 formerly known as North End Technologies, the robot was introduced back in June 2010, as a compact and elegant alternative to existing telepresence solutions.
The stylish 1,2 meter tall robot also got LTE connectivity at the beginning of this year, with service provided by Verizon in the US. Head mounted tweeters and base mounted woofer speakers, 4 microphones, a camera and a 6 inch LCD display are some of the integrated equipment onboard the robot. The camera has pan and tilt capabilities so the remote user can easily navigate in tighter spaces by pointing the camera down, or interact with people by panning in a desired direction instead of turning the whole robot. The camera is also equipped with a flash for capturing high quality 2 megapixel snapshots when required, while it is also equipped with head and base-mounted light sources for navigating in darker areas.
There are also microphone status LEDs on the head of the robot, for people on location to know if they are active or muted. An interesting feature is that the robot can automatically dock itself at the push of a button without the user being required to manually navigate the robot to the docking station. The standard communication interface is 802.11 b/g/n WiFi with embedded Verizon LTE connectivity being available as an option. There’s also a custom handheld remote control available for controlling the robot on location and the robot also sports an integrated touch pad for configuration and other purposes. The VGo software application is available for both Windows and Mac platforms and provides full control of all the robot’s functions. There is also a cloud computing infrastructure available, VgoNet, which aids in determining availability and optimizing connection paths between the Vgo and the remote user.
A voice digitization engine, through which the robot can speak anything that is typed by the remote user, comes in handy if the user does not have a microphone or if he or she is located in a noisy environment. The robot can be remotely driven through the application software, either by using the keyboard or the mouse.
The VGo has a weight between 8 and 10 kilograms (18 to 22 lbs), depending on the type of battery employed, the standard battery can hold up for 6 hours of robot operation, with an optional 12 hour battery being available. The rolling base is made of 2 independently actuated wheels which can propel the robot to a maximum speed of around 3 km/h, approximately 2 mph. There are also two small support wheels to ensure static and dynamic stability for the robot. Sensor arrays are mounted on the base of the robot feature obstacle and cliff detection capabilities. The VGo robot comes at a price of under 6000 US Dollars, however there is also a mandatory service contract of around 1200 US Dollar per year. For this you get the VGo with a standard 6 hour battery, charging station, handheld remote control and 20 licenses for the VGo App software.
Suitable Technologies Beam Remote Presence System
The Beam Remote Presence System (RPS) comes from Suitable Technologies a division of Willow Garage research labs, the creators of the famous PR2. Willow Garage have been working for a while on the Texai RPS prototype, so naturally the Beam RPS is based on the principles of this prototype. The Beam RPS has three components: the Beam Remote Presence Device (RPD) which is essentially the mobile remote controlled robot unit, the neatly designed Beam Pilot client software available for Windows and Mac platforms, and the Beam Dock which is the recharging station of the robot.
The Beam RPS made it to the market in November 2012. Priced at 16.000 US Dollars, from the specs we can tell that the system is packed with features, nevertheless the price seems a tad high. The Beam RPD is equipped with a large 17 inch screen, for more appropriate proportions of the human head displayed onto it. The 1,6 meters tall robot is equipped with 2 wide angle HD cameras, an array of no less than 6 microphones to aid with noise cancellation and echo reduction, a speaker and dual band 2,4 GHz and 5 GHz WiFi transceivers with proprietary roaming algorithms to minimize the risk of losing connectivity and communication encryption support. The robot can be operated continuously for 8 hours, company representatives say, and has a top speed of 5,4 km/h to match human walking speed. The robot has a weight of 43 kilograms and is also equipped with light sources for operation in dim light. The official presentation video can be seen below.
The GSR-1 is “India’s first telepresence robot” as the developers say. The company Gridbots was founded in 2007 in Ahmedabad, India and provides technology for numerous fields such as surveillance, industrial robotics, automation and defense, and has made its entrance into the consumer robotics market with the GSR-1. The company was founded by Pulkit Gaur, who holds distinctions such as TED Conferences fellowship and 2011 Innovator of the year granted by MIT Technology Review. The GSR-1 robot was presented earlier this year at the Techkriti fair organised by Indian Institute of Technology (IITK).
Not too much information is available on the manufacturer’s website, however from what we could find we understood that the GSR-1 integrates most mainstream functions a telepresence robot should have such as visual SLAM based navigation, internet connectivity, high resolution camera with pan and tilt control, automatic localization for waypoint navigation and automatic return to the charging dock, handheld controller for local operation and 4 hour operation on a single charge of its 24 VDC battery power source. The robot has a sturdy chassis, a 4-wheel rolling base and 30 kilograms payload. There is also no detail on pricing, probably such information will be presented at a later date. A CNBC report about Gridbots is presented in the video below.
Hello Labs Helios iPhone Telepresence Robot
Helios is another project that did not make it into mass production.
Designed by Hello Labs, a start-up company created by Tian Long Wang, who holds multiple degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from Cambridge and Princeton Universities, the Helios aims to be an extremely simple and affordable telepresence solution. Install the Helios app your iPod Touch, iPhone 4, 4S or 5 and simply insert your device into the 120 US Dollar rolling base and you instantly get a telepresence robot through which you can interact with friends and family almost imediately. The newly created robot can be controlled by the remote person through a simple web interface.
The rolling platform can move in any direction, left-right and forward-backward and can also be tilted up and down by the remote user for a better view. There is no electrical connection between the iPhone you are using and the Helios, as it happens for instance in a dock, instead patterns of black and white squares are displayed on the lower part of the phone display, corresponding to commands issued by the remote user. These are not visible when the phone is inserted into the Helios, and light sensors in the robot pick up these command patterns and translate them into movements. An example is shown in the picture below.
The Helios is based on the Arduino Nano controller and SDK support, which includes Arduino programming and the iOS API, will be available as soon as shipments start. And speaking of shipments, they will start in February 2013, as we could learn from the Helios Kickstarter campaign. The presentation video can be seen below.