Robotic Telepresence Technology & Applications

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Robotic Telepresence

Technology & Applications

by Geoff Keston

Docid: 00021361

Publication Date: 2011

Report Type: TUTORIAL


Healthcare and other industries are exploring the use of remote
controlled robots to enable geographically dispersed people to communicate
more flexibly and naturally. These devices are in their early stages of
development and present opportunities for the makers of the many types of
technologies they include, from videoconferencing to specialized software.
The market need is still unproven, however, and the forms that such
devices will take is uncertain. Organizations need to find the right
balance between taking advantage of the opportunity and avoiding
investments that will not yield good returns.

Report Contents:

Executive Summary

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Telepresence robots facilitate two-way video and audio communication at a

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They are, in essence, mobile videoconferencing systems that distantly
located users control: doctors can remotely steer them to patients within
a hospital, telecommuters can use them to follow coworkers from a meeting
room to a water cooler, and investigators can navigate them within
dangerous locations that they cannot safely visit themselves.

A typical robot is about the size and shape of a person, with the remote
driver’s face shown on a video screen mounted at the height of a human
face. While some developers have considered making the devices more
life-like, even contemplating the use of rubber coating that is similar to
skin, the basic design and features of telepresence robots have remained
constant over the past several years.

The interest in telepresence robots is part of a larger trend toward
using technology to facilitate close connectivity that can be easily
established from almost any location. Other technologies used to meet this
goal include Web cams offered as standard features on office phones or
laptops, Web-based conferencing software like Zoom or Cisco WebEx, social
networking, and cloud computing. These technologies aim to make remote
communication more natural, easier to establish, and less bound by
location. While these other technologies have seen greatly increasing use,
telepresence robots have remained a niche offering.


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Telepresence robots are controlled by remote users, who can navigate the
devices to different parts of a facility and interact with other people by
using built-in audio- and videoconferencing features. Examples of current
and potential uses include the following:

  • Doctors visiting patients at a remote facility
  • Telecommuters interacting with coworkers at a corporate location
  • Supervisors visiting employees at branch locations
  • Sick children attending school
  • Tourists visiting sites
  • Security personnel patrolling a location
  • Specialists providing consultations

Most of the products on the market are designed to have roughly the
dimensions of a human: their orientation is vertical (not horizontal like
a four-wheeled vehicle) and the screen showing the robot driver is at eye
level. They are motorized and move at about human walking pace across flat
surfaces using two wheels, and their positioning can be adjusted using
tilting and swiveling motions. Their batteries give them just a few hours
of operation; for example, one model that began shipping in early 2019 has
a reported 6 hours of battery life during operation or 18 hours while not
in use, while a 2020 analysis of products found that the longest battery
life among business-grade robots was 12 hours.1

Most of these products use WiFi to facilitate connectivity over the Web, but
some also use a 4G or 5G network. Many models have sensors to help
drivers avoid obstacles and laser pointers to let drivers point to objects,
such as for a presentation. Some robots have more than one camera — for
instance, one for steering and another for viewing people’s faces.

The robots are typically operated using common computers, including
desktops and mobile devices, and are steered using ordinary interfaces
like keyboards, mice, and touchscreens.2 Many use standard
browsers as interfaces and offer their remote control software as a cloud
service. And some products have special features, such as connection bays
that let the robots link to medical devices. 

Prices for telepresence robots vary widely based on the features they
offer, such as whether they’re mobile or stationary. Some cost less than
$200, but others sell for as much as $15,000. A typical price for a
human-sized, mobile robot is $2,200-$4,000.3 These prices have
remained relatively consistent over the years.

But a different approach to pricing is being tried by Ava
Robotics. Previous versions of the company’s autonomous robot were sold
for $70,000. But now the company rents the technology for a monthly fee of
close to $1000.4 This service includes support and an orientation
in which Ava guides the robot through the environment in which it will
operate, helping it to create a map of the building’s interior. Figure 1
depicts an example of a common design for a telepresence robot.

Figure 1. VGo Telepresence Robot

Figure 1. VGo Telepresence Robot

(Source: VGo. Used with permission)

Current View

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Viewing the state of the field in mid-2018, Keith Shaw, Editor-in-Chief for
Robotics Business Review, wrote that “[c]ompared with robotics
suppliers to the manufacturing, supply chain, and self-driving vehicles
markets, telepresence robot companies have flown under the radar.”5
Since that 2018 assessment, the market has remained small and the technology
has not attracted the interest of a significantly broader range of
customers. The marketplace can be viewed in respect to two metrics:

  • The relatively small investments being made. For example, one of the
    market’s most prominent companies, Ava Robotics, acquired $2.9 million
    in investments in one 2019 filing.6
  • The relatively small sizes of companies acquiring telepresence firms.7

By the standards of more lucrative markets, like mobile technology and
social media, small amounts of money are being invested and interest in
acquisitions isn’t emerging among large companies.

Another sign that telepresence robots may not grow beyond niche uses is
that even in the era of coronavirus — which might appear to be the
greatest possible driver for the technology’s use — it has been Zoom
desktop videoconferencing, not telepresence devices, that has greatly
increased in use.  (The pandemic did spark some interest in robots,

Two key problems have held back development in the
field. First, demand for the technology has not significantly grown or
widened. Most companies and consumers have found that their communication
needs are met by cell phones and basic teleconferencing. Describing this
lack of demand, OhmniLabs CTO Jared Go says that vendors haven’t succeeded
in talking about the ways in which robots have performed functions that
couldn’t be well met by other communication technologies.9
“Moving the perception [needle] is about these kinds of stories spreading
around the world,” he suggests.

Second, despite advances, today’s robotic telepresence technology is, in
many ways, conventional conferencing tools on wheels. The quality of the
audio and video is not noteworthy, while the mobility remains more
mechanical than human. One indicator of the technological state of the
field is that, as recently as 2017, a review of products found that there
was only one choice worth buying, because no other robot was “reliable and
user-friendly enough.”10 And another round-up of reviews from
the same year warned companies: “don’t buy one of the duds!”11 The
technology hasn’t significantly changed or advanced since these reviews
were written, so neither have public perceptions.


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The worldwide marketplace for telepresence robots is modest in size but
is forecast to grow steadily at a 11.5-percent compound rate, from $165
million in 2019 to $184 million in 2025.12 To put this in
perspective, the overall market for medical robotics, which includes
devices used in surgery, is expected to grow to more than $24 billion
in 2025.13

The future of telepresence robotics ultimately depends on the uses that are
found for the technology. And right now, those uses haven’t been identified,
at least not by many potential buyers. Describing this state of the market,
Lian Jye Su of ABI Research says that the search for a “killer application”
remains elusive, despite a large number of “markets that are left untapped.”14


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Monitor New Developments

Even after many years, telepresence robotics technology is still
developing, so most potential customers — and vendors that could make
software or components for the devices — would be wise to proceed
cautiously. The potential competitive advantages are not yet strong enough
to pressure customers into moving quickly, and the business opportunity is
not yet great enough to entice vendors into rashly jumping into the

But with these caveats in mind, it is also worth investigating ways that
this technology creates new opportunities and impacts target industries.
The trends that are motivating the creation of telepresence are also
motivating the development of a broader range of technology, some of which
is already popular. In other words, while the eventual success of
telepresence robots remains uncertain, telepresence in general appears to
already have proved its market demand and technical feasibility.

The more uncertain questions, then, include the following:

  • Will telepresence robots be a niche technology or widely used?
  • For which uses will they be popular?
  • How large will the market be?
  • Which features and design elements will be favored?

Organizations can monitor marketplace and technology developments to
determine the shape these answers are taking, and thus guide their
strategies accordingly. For example, organizations in the medical field
would be wise to follow how well robotic technology is performing in
functions like surgery.15

Legal issues are also worth following. A good source of information
on relevant legal developments is the annual We Robot conference.16
One of the legal hurdles will be gaining regulatory approval for certain
uses. The US Food and Drug Administration has approved some telepresence
products, but it has also denied approval to others, as it did in 2016
when it denied approval to TransEnterix’s SurgiBot .17

Consider User Experiences

Telepresence robots are designed to make remote communication simple and
natural, so user reactions must be heavily factored into future designs.
With this in mind, a few years ago, there was talk about telepresence robots
evolving different form factors and features. “More and more sensors will
come into play,” said Michael J. Walker, Chief Marketing Officer of
Bossa Nova Robotics.18 “Beyond the visual and aural, new haptic
feedback sensors will allow users to ‘feel’ surfaces remotely or smell
the environment. The user interfaces will become more intuitive and natural
for the driver and the receiver,” Walker envisioned. Some predictions even
imagined more human-like designs: “The next step for telepresence robots may
be to give them limbs — not to manipulate distant objects, but to make the
robots more expressive” said an article in The Economist, which
also observed that some researchers were using “[a] telepresence robot
sheathed in rubbery skin…resembling an androgynous and legless child with
short, handless arms”19

But in the years since those ambitious predictions were made, commercial
products have not developed along these lines. Devices are still mostly
screens on poles, mounted to wheels or a desktop base. This may simply be
the design users prefer. Describing design preferences from the
user’s side, John Bell, the Director of Michigan State University’s Design
Studio, which implemented telepresence robots on a limited scale for
distance learners, emphasizes not human-like traits but “embodiment,”
a metric that he sees as comprising “freedom of movement, audio, and video
quality and support for various strategies for engagement.”20
And beyond these factors that contribute to presence in an environment,
Bell also mentions “[p]ragmatic considerations” such as “price per device,
battery life, required network throughput and complexity of use.”

One direction that the technology could take is toward products aimed at
a broader potential audience. This is the idea being pursued
by OhmniLabs, whose Ohmni aims to be less expensive and easier to set
up than most products on the market. These features make it feasible for
consumer use. “When you order, we can even pre-program WiFi credentials
for you so that if you ship it to your parents, they just unbox, unfold,
and turn it on,” says the company’s CTO Go.21 “We’ve had people
65+ set it up with high level verbal instructions only.”


National Science Foundation. “For University
Classrooms, Are Telepresence Robots the Next Best Thing to Being There?” National
Science Foundation. 
June 10, 2020
Jennifer Davis. “‘Telepresence’ Robots Are Making Virtual School Feel a
Little More Like Real School.” Washington Post. November 10,

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About the Author

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Geoff Keston is the author of more than 250 articles
that help organizations find opportunities in business trends and
technology. He also works directly with clients to develop communications
strategies that improve processes and customer relationships. Mr. Keston
has worked as a project manager for a major technology consulting and
services company and is a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer and a
Certified Novell Administrator.

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