Telepresence robots less creepy when used as more than just a way to bug co-workers

Spina bifida patient "attends" school using remote-controlled telepresence robot

In the ages before vaccines, non-invasive medical imaging and the diagnostic skills of House, M.D., it wasn't that unusual for a child sick with polio or smallpox or rickets or whatever to be out of school for weeks or months at a time.

Now only catastrophic injuries typically put Americans out of school or work for that long.

One exception is spina bifida, a congenital condition in which the spinal cord isn't fully formed before birth, causing lifelong problems with mobility and, often, seizures and complications that affect whole organ systems.

One 14-year-old in Pittsburg with a pretty serious case is attending school via robot because he can no longer tolerate the school environment in person due to respiratory and digestive problems that, combined with his spina bifida, require 21 daily medications and help getting around.

Cris Colaluca stays home but can see through the camera of a 4-foot-tall robot called a VGo that lets him communicate with teachers and classmates using a camera, mike and speakers, and to "move" from class to class by remotely controlling the robot, which is connected via WiFi throughout the school.

The robot cost the school district $5,995 plus $1,195 in annual service charges to give a student a virtual presence in the classroom rather than having to bring the free state-mandated education to him (at higher cost).

Usually "virtual presence" robots are pretty creepy. Expecting a person to attend a meeting and then have a robot wearing a bow tie roll in with the image of that person's face on its monitor is going to be James-Bond-villainesque no matter how you dress it up or how much money it saves on travel.

This one, which a flunky carries around on his or her shoulder so you can ride along virtually, is even worse because it looks like you decided to bring you pet-parrot/Terminator robot with you to work.

The idea of virtual presence has some sense to it, but not usually enough to justify the cost, trouble or psychotic-toddler aspect in which you force other people to carry a machine around with them and go to a lot of trouble to talk to it just so you don't miss anything.

The sick-kid-going-to-school angle is the first I've seen that doesn't look as if the designers wanted to build artificial girlfriends or secret D&D partners, but had to restrain themselves so as not to creep out the investors.

It's still not practical on a large scale. Virtual presence is still mostly a teleconference experience at best.

Being able to remotely control a virtual "you" might make it easier to get around a trade show or other event. But the ability to move around in or physically interact with a distant location is easily within the 20-percent benefit that would eat up 80 percent of your development money if you weren't smart enough to just handle telepresence the way everyone else does: with a laptop and a webcam.

What could possibly be creepy about that?

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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