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Telepresence Robots for People with Special Needs

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Telepresence - An Overview

The term telepresence refers to “a set of technologies which allow a person to feel as if they were present, to give the appearance that they were present, or to have an effect, at a location other than their true location.” [1] Examples of telepresence include:

  • Teleconferencing, where individuals in different locations “meet” via video and audio communication
  • Remote surgery, allowing surgeons to control robotic devices to perform surgery in a distant operating room
  • Telepresence robots that navigate buildings and allow interaction between the operator and individuals at the robot’s location

For a detailed overview of telepresence, visit the Telepresence ATwiki page.

Features of Telepresence Robots

Anybot's QB Telepresence Robot features twoway video, adjustable height, and user-operated mobility.
Anybot's QB Telepresence Robot features twoway video, adjustable height, and user-operated mobility.[2]

Telepresence robots have varying features with respect to video and audio communication, user interfaces, physical features, and mobility. Generally, the more advanced the features, the more realistic the interaction between the remote and local users.

Video and Audio Communication

Telepresence robots allow communication between the remote operator and local user through wireless video and audio systems. Most robots have twoway video features, allowing both people to view each other during their conversation. For optimal video streaming, two video profiles are necessary: one while the robot is stationary and one while the robot is mobile. High video resolution also improves the telepresence experience. A wide field of view is also important for better environmental awareness during navigation.

High quality audio enhances the interaction between the telepresence robot users. The remote operator and individuals physically present with the robot should be able to adjust volume.[3]

User interface

Most telepresence robots are operated with device-specific computer software. These programs usually allow the user to adjust tilt of the camera, drive the robot forward, backward, left, or right, and control speed of the device. The operator uses a variety of input devices to control the computer software.

Additionally, researchers are developing brain-machine interface systems for control of telepresence robots. Jose del R. Millian, a biomedical engineer in Switzerland, and colleagues have investigated the use of electroencephalogram (EEG) for control of telepresence robots. In one study, two patients with paraplegia who had been bed-bound for six to seven years donned caps with EEG electrodes. After a six-week training regimen, the two subjects were able to mentally control a robot 100 kilometers away. The subjects were able to drive the robot to targets such as people, small objects, and furniture.[4]

Physical features

Most telepresence robots have a video screen at the proximal portion of the device where the remote operator’s image is shown. On some robots, this video screen is approximately the size of a person’s face, in order to hopefully improve communication between the users. A head that can pan and tilt is also useful for viewing the robot’s surroundings. Additionally, a panning feature allows the robot to have a conversation while walking. Some robots have adjustable heights. Ideally, the operator should be able to adjust the height remotely, or should at least be able to switch between a sitting and standing height, so that conversation can be at eye-level.[5]

Mobility

Some robots are stationary, having to be manually transported from room to room. Other systems are mobile, and the operator can control their path of motion and speed. For conversations to occur during walking, the robot should be able to walk at average human walking speed, approximately three miles per hour. Current commercial robots are able to reach approximately this speed.[6]

Implications for Individuals with Special Needs

InTouch Health's RP-7 can be connected to electronic medical devices to transmit medical data to the physician in a remote location.
InTouch Health's RP-7 can be connected to electronic medical devices to transmit medical data to the physician in a remote location.[7]

Telepresence robots have great potential for improving the quality of life of individuals with special needs. Participation in society is a common challenge for individuals who have difficulty with mobility outside of the home, especially the elderly and people with disabilities. Lack of societal integration can lead to feelings of isolation and sadness, possibly leading to further health problems, such as depression. Telepresence robots are designed to “promote social interaction between people,” thus reducing isolation and improving quality of life.[8]

Two general scenarios exist for use of telepresence robots by people with special needs. First, the robot can “live” in the residence of the person with a special need and be operated by family or healthcare workers from a remote location. This option has been used by doctors for conducting hospital rounds, by healthcare staff to provide exercise instruction in rehabilitation facilities, and by family and caregivers to provide assistance and visits in a person’s home.[9]

Robots designed for this scenario include InTouch Health’s Remote Presence robots and Giraff. In addition to motorized capabilities and twoway video, InTouch Health’s FDA-cleared RP-7 robot can be connected to electronic stethoscopes, ultrasounds, and otoscopes to transmit medical data directly to the physician operating the robot.[10] With the Giraff telepresence robot, the care-recipient and caregiver can visit via two-way video, and the caregiver can follow the resident around their home with a mouse click.[11]

In the second scenario, the robot is located distant to the person with a special need. That person operates the robot to move and interact with individuals in the remote environment. To date, the primary use of this option has been to allow hospital-bound and home-bound children to attend school. Telebotics’ PEBBLES (Providing Education By Bringing Learning Environments to Students) has been used in Canada and across the United States to allow hospitalized children to virtually attend school. PEBBLES is placed in a child’s classroom, and, from the hospital, the child can control the robot to look around the room or raise its hand to answer a question. PEBBLES is a passive device that has to be carried from room to room; the child has no control over its mobility.[12]

PEBBLES allows hospitalized children to go to school and raise their hands to participate.
PEBBLES allows hospitalized children to go to school and raise their hands to participate.[13]

The VGo robot is an active device; in addition to controlling where the robot “looks” (camera angle), the child can remotely control where it goes. Lyndon Baty, a high schooler in Knox City, Texas uses VGo to attend school. Baty was born with polycystic kidney disease, requiring a kidney transplant at age 7. His fragile immune system keeps him home-bound, but the VGo allows him to actively participate in class, move between classes, and feel like he’s part of his school. Before having VGo, extroverted Baty was depressed, not eating, and “just [wanted] it to be over”.[14] With the VGo, he is excited to get up each day and go to school. He states the following about his experience with VGo: "It's absolutely amazing. I would have never thought when I was sick that I would ever have any interaction, much less this kind. It is just like I am there in the classroom."[15] The telepresence robot has indisputably improved his quality of life.

(To see a video clip of Lyndon Baty's interview on the Today show, follow this link: http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/26184891/vp/41641714#41641714)

Future Design Considerations

Low Price

Current robotic systems widely range in price. The VGo system retails for around $6K, while Anybot’s QB costs $15K. As telepresence robotic technology continues to develop, price is something to be minimized. Individuals who can benefit from this technology probably have high medical expenses, so if this technology is to be used, it needs to be affordable. As a lot of assistive technology is not covered by insurance, it is likely that this device will not be deemed medically necessary, and the expense will fall on the user.[16]

Expand Uses for Individuals with Disabilities

VGo gives homebound children the freedom to roam the halls of their schools with their friends.
VGo gives homebound children the freedom to roam the halls of their schools with their friends.[17]

As mentioned above, most telepresence robots operated by a person with a special need are used by children to attend school. There should be consideration into how robots can be used by adults with disabilities to attend work or seniors to be more involved in society. The Americans with Disabilities Act states that employers must reasonably accommodate the disabilities of an employee. A telepresence robot may fall under this reasonable accommodation, allowing homebound adults to work.[18]

A user needs assessment of seniors indicated that subjects were eager to use telepresence robots to engage in society. Out of twelve respondents, six wanted to use the robot outside, five wanted to attend a concert or sporting event via the robot, and four wanted to use the robot to visit a theatre or museum.[19] In summary, people with disabilities generally want to be involved in society. Telepresence allows this participation and improved quality of life.


References

  1. Telepresence
  2. http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/industrial-robots/051810-anybots-qb-new-telepresence-robot
  3. Munjal Desai, Katherine M. Tsui, Holly A. Yanco, and Chris Uhlik. Essential Features of Telepresence Robots. Proceedings of the IEEE International Conference on Technologies for Practical Robot Applications, Woburn, MA, April 2011.
  4. http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2011/09/disabled-patients-mind-meld-with.html#.TpZWzaGpIZo.email
  5. Munjal Desai, Katherine M. Tsui, Holly A. Yanco, and Chris Uhlik. Essential Features of Telepresence Robots. Proceedings of the IEEE International Conference on Technologies for Practical Robot Applications, Woburn, MA, April 2011.
  6. Munjal Desai, Katherine M. Tsui, Holly A. Yanco, and Chris Uhlik. Essential Features of Telepresence Robots. Proceedings of the IEEE International Conference on Technologies for Practical Robot Applications, Woburn, MA, April 2011.
  7. http://www.intouchhealth.com/products_rp-7_robots.html
  8. Katherine M. Tsui, Adam Norton, Daniel Brooks, Holly A. Yanco, and David Kontak. Designing Telepresence Robot Systems for Use by People with Special Needs. Proceedings of the International Symposium on Quality of Life Technologies 2011: Intelligent Systems for Better Living, held in conjunction with RESNA 2011 as part of FICCDAT, Toronto, Canada, June 6-7, 2011
  9. Katherine M. Tsui, Adam Norton, Daniel Brooks, Holly A. Yanco, and David Kontak. Designing Telepresence Robot Systems for Use by People with Special Needs. Proceedings of the International Symposium on Quality of Life Technologies 2011: Intelligent Systems for Better Living, held in conjunction with RESNA 2011 as part of FICCDAT, Toronto, Canada, June 6-7, 2011
  10. http://www.intouchhealth.com/products_rp-7_robots.html
  11. http://www.robotdalen.se/en/Projects/Giraff---a-mobile-robot-for-the-home/
  12. Katherine M. Tsui, Adam Norton, Daniel Brooks, Holly A. Yanco, and David Kontak. Designing Telepresence Robot Systems for Use by People with Special Needs. Proceedings of the International Symposium on Quality of Life Technologies 2011: Intelligent Systems for Better Living, held in conjunction with RESNA 2011 as part of FICCDAT, Toronto, Canada, June 6-7, 2011
  13. http://www.ryerson.ca/pebbles/
  14. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1188682/7/index.htm
  15. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/06/texas-student-lyndon-baty-vgo-robot_n_818884.html
  16. http://singularityhub.com/2011/02/02/texas-student-attends-school-as-a-robot-a-sign-of-things-to-come-video/
  17. http://www.vgocom.com/remote-student
  18. http://www2.americanbar.org/calendar/ll04271-national-symposium/Documents/e_03.pdf
  19. J.Beer and L. Takayama, "Mobile Remote Presence Systems for Older Adults: Acceptance, Benefits, and Concerns," in Proc. of the 6th Intl. Conf. on Human-Robot Interaction. ACM, 2011, pp. 19-26.