Telepresence: Being 2 places at once.

Would you like to visit somewhere that has better weather than where you live? Do you have friends or family who live all over the world and you wish you could visit them?

What if I could tell you that you could do all that without even leaving your home? No I have not been watching too much sci-fi and yes there is a technology that enables people to be “present” in 2 places at once known as telepresence.

Basically telepresence is a group of systems that enable the user to be “present” in a remote location. They provide the user with sensory feedback of the remote location and enables them to be aware and interact in the robot’s environment. For example I can be sitting in my home in Scotland talking to someone in Japan while I think I am in the same room as them or I am exploring the bottom of the ocean while sitting in a lab.

The difference between teleoperated and telepresence is that telepresence focuses on creating an illusion of presence in a remote site. This illusion is created by recording sounds and video similarly how we hear and see things. Some systems even include physical feedback to enhance the immersion.

The virtual barbershop is a great way to show how telepresence works.

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Cisco Telepresence System 3200. Photo Credit: Cisco.com

There are a wide range of telepresence systems available and underdevelopment. From Cisco’s telepresence system (shown above) for teleconferences,surrogate robots that are being used in hospitals that allow doctors to treat patients remotely to creepy to the creepy and almost lifelike Geminoid F.

Telepresence improves communication during teleconferences as discussions flow more naturally than traditional conference calls. This is because the systems allow the users since they utilise the cocktail party effect, a phenomenon that allows you to focus on the person who is talking to you while others in the same teleconference are speaking at the same time.

What excites me is that telepresence can have a major impact on improving the safety of dangerous tasks such as bomb disposal, deep sea/space exploration and mine excavation by replacing humans with tele-operated robots. By providing various sensory stimulus such as haptic feedback, binaural recording they can immerse the operator and make them more aware and being able to interact with the robot’s surroundings thus making them more effective at the remote site. For example if a telepresence robot was being used in rescue survivors in a collapsed building the operator can localise sounds from survivors thus making the robot more effective in locating and rescuing them. Add in a manipulator arm the operator can remove rubble and free the survivors.

I also see the medical sector such as reducing the risk of a pandemic by treating patients with contagious diseases and infections by operating the robotics which would eliminate their exposure. In addition a robot rigged out (such as the TU Delft)with medical equipment could be deployed in areas where a quick response time for emergency services is difficult. These robots would be operated by a doctor who could remotely perform life saving treatment for heart attacks or strokes within minutes thus improving their chances of survival.

The versatility in terms of applications and the combination of human rationale and the accuracy and repeatability of machines is why I am passionate towards telepresence.

Cover image by Eric Proctor of the Sensors and Electron Devices Directorate of the Army Research Laboratory

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