Telepresence robots are beginning to connect people in new ways in businesses, hospitals, and even classrooms. They're essentially webcams on wheels, serving as simple avatars that allow you to chat and explore another place. Now inexpensive versions that connect with your smartphone are beginning to appear for use at home.
The latest of these comes from Hello Labs, a start-up led by Tian Long Wang (who has earned degrees at both Cambridge and Princeton) that has created Helios – a simple, US$120 telepresence robot designed specifically for the home that uses iPhone 4, 4S, 5. The company just launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund its development, where early adopters can buy in for as little as US$99 (with the first units shipping in February 2013).
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Set up seems fairly idiot-proof. All you have to do is turn on the app, plop your iPhone into the Helios attachment, and the person on the other end of the line (via a web browser) can take control of the robot. The remote user's inputs are sent with their video feed as black and white markers along the bottom edge of the screen, which the Helios's sensors interpret as commands. This handy little trick means the Helios doesn't need to physically connect with your iPhone at all.
In August, a similar attachment for Android phones called Botiful was successfully Kickstarted. Created by California-based inventor Claire Delaunay, it connects people via Skype and will retail for around $299. Besides the higher price, the Botiful does require a physical connection to your phone, and it is Android-only. Their Kickstarter campaign fell just shy of adding iPhone support, but with more funding she still intends to add it.
Is it really useful?Either way, the main problem I see with these solutions is they're rather small, meaning you won't be able to hold a proper conversation unless you put them on a desk or table (which will limit one's ability to drive it around). The more expensive (professional level) telepresence robots typically put the unit's camera and screen on a tall, slender neck that facilitates a face-to-screen conversation even if you're standing (see the Beam for an example).
Another issue is that you can't connect to the Helios unless the phone is on and the app is activated. So if you want to check in on your pets while at the office, you'll have to set that up in advance, which seems like a bit of a hassle. Still, it could be be good for interacting with the kids if they get bored easily while chatting in front of a laptop.
Some of these issues may end up being resolved through user feedback leading up to its production. And if you're the ambitious type, Hello Labs will provide the Helios's SDK and iOS API so you can tinker with its inner workings and possibly improve it to suit your individual needs.
You can see Helios in action in the Kickstarter campaign promo video below.