Recently, I came upon a news item concerning a 7-year-old boy in upstate New York who is unable to attend school, because he suffers from life-threatening allergies. Well, that's not quite right. He actually does attend school, but he does it from the safety of his home, thanks to a 4-foot-tall robot — manufactured by Nashua, N.H.-based VGo Communications — that serves as his proxy.
We write about technology just about every day — just as we are doing this week as we cover the(IWCE) in Las Vegas. Much of this technology is designed to improve people's lives or make them more productive. Sometimes, we write about technology that saves people's lives. And that is all well and good.
But what's really fun is to write about is technology that is life-changing. In the case of the aforementioned grade-schooler, the youngster is able to attend his classes via the robot — it moves from classroom to classroom through the hallways, just like any other student — and interact with his classmates. They can see him on the high-definition screen that is centered in the robot's "head," and he can see them on his home computer screen, thanks to the robot's HD camera. High-quality microphones and speakers enable conversations.
"He can interact with his peers in a way that's more lifelike, if you will," said Grinnell More, VGo co-founder and the company's chief robotics officer. "It creates a different experience, both for the person at the far end and for the people around the robot who really feel that there's a person there in their midst."
However, VGo was careful not to make the robot too lifelike, according to Ned Semonite, the company's vice president of product management.
"If it's too lifelike, people think it's creepy," Semonite said. "If you go to events where there are human-looking robots, and you look at the people around them, they're very reserved."
One key aspect of the robot is that the school doesn't need to assign someone to handle it; it is controlled remotely by the home-bound student. In fact, it can be parked in its docking station — where the robot charges for the next day's activities — by the remote user.
"As long as you're within about 10 feet of the dock, a button will light up on the user interface," Semonite said. "When you click on that button, the robot takes control and docks itself."
I asked Semonite and More about potential liability problems, specifically whether they have any qualms about the robot running into another child and causing an injury. They don't, in part because the robot is constructed mostly from lightweight plastic — it only weighs about 17 pounds, far less than the weight of the average second-grader.
"It's not heavy enough to hurt anybody," More said.
Also, the robot doesn't move very fast.
"You can drive this thing full speed into a wall or something, and you won't hurt anything," Semonite said. "Its top speed is about that of a slow walking pace. And the speed is infinitely adjustable via the mouse."
Another safety feature is enabled by sensors that prevent the robot from tumbling down stairs, More said.
"The robot knows that it's not seeing anything in front of it anymore," he said. "The sensors check for the presence of the floor and, if the floor is no longer present in front of the robot, it stops. It actually does an emergency stop that halts the forward motion. But the system will allow you to turn or back up the robot, so you can extract yourself from the situation."
Semonite said students can attend school remotely via teleconferencing technology, but that option is limiting, because the school would need to install cameras in every classroom that the student would need to use to replicate the experience provided by the robot — an unlikely event, even if schools weren't financially strapped, as they are in today's still-challenging economic climate. While a video-conferencing system can cost $100,000 or more, VGo's robot costs just $6,000, with a $1,200-per-year service contract that includes technical support and 24-hour replacement of hardware, Semonite said.
There are arguably more important uses for the robot. For instance, doctors use them to make hospital rounds. Typically, they make rounds in the morning and only once per day; but the robot allows them to virtually make rounds wherever they are — as many times as they wish — to keep better tabs on their patients. This is particularly important for high-risk patients. Meanwhile, Boston Children's Hospital uses the robots to enable doctors to make what are essentially house calls, Semonite said.
Nevertheless, the use case that enables a little kid to be, well, a little more like a little kid, is the one that makes me smile.