Turn Grandma into a robot

Consumer telepresence robots could improve long-distance communication for families

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My job requires lots of travel, so I'm away from my family more often than I'd like. Advances in communication across computers, phones and tablets means that I can usually chat with my wife and kids via things like the regular telephone, Skype or Apple's FaceTime. These types of communication options are also good for talking with relatives (my brother, father-in-law, grandparents, etc.) across the country.

The next logical step in this communication field appears to be telepresence robots. I've seen some of these being pitched for business purposes, where a remote worker can feel like they're part of the in-office team by wandering around the halls or attending boardroom meetings - the robots are basically a monitor (or tablet) with a webcam on the front, and the person's face displays on the tablet's monitor. The tablet is connected to a long pole, which has wheels on the bottom. The remote user can drive the telepresence robot around the office, going into places where you wouldn't normally use a tablet/notebook with Skype. For example, a robot could hang out with co-workers at the water cooler.

These robots are relatively expensive, but can make sense for those work scenarios, as well as others (schools where a student is sick, or hospitals where a remote doctor can visit with patients). Now these types of robots could soon be invading the home, aimed at the frequent traveler who wants to do things with the kids rather than just a quick FaceTime, or the grandparent who wants to see junior's latest artwork. Check out this video from Suitable Technologies, which is promoting its Beam+ telepresence robot:

Another scenario pitched was to buy one of these robots for your own parents (or grandparents), the one who is constantly calling you for tech advice. WIth this robot, you can sign in and drive the robot over to the computer and fix their PC, router or other tech issue without having to install a remote login client or even have them try to log in to your own robot.

There still seems to be some downsides - are you wiling to pay $1,000 to $2,000 for this type of communication tool when other methods are available and less expensive? Talking to my three kids via FaceTime when I'm traveling gets pretty old quickly - after about 5 minutes of us just looking at each other or me showing them my hotel room, there's not much else to do. The robots also don't seem to be able to go upstairs and downstairs very easily, so it's likely that someone else in the house would have to lift the 'bot to go up or down depending on what you wanted them to do. And I'm not yet fully convinced that this robot would work well on the carpets at my house, or could navigate our floors (how does it deal with driving over things like my kids' socks or Legos that they leave all over the place?

Do you think that a telepresence robot could be in your future home? What scenarios would make this more worthwhile for you? One co-worker suggested this would be a great way for someone to walk the dog - just tie the leash to the robot and then have someone remote walk the animal around the neighborhood. Another co-worker said this could ease the transition for families going through a divorce - "Daddy's not here anymore, but you can still talk to him via this robot".

Let me know in the comments if you think in-home robots like this will become more commonplace in the future, or is it a solution looking for a problem?

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