Tag Archives: telepresence

Show loved ones you virtually care

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Hey. The guy on the left doesn't have an exhibit floor pass.

You don’t have to settle for just sending flowers to a relative in a nursing home. You can send yourself, and the whole family, via a $1,500 teeping robot. Or if you’re on a budget, maybe rent the telepresence device for a few bucks an hour. It’s cheaper than a plane trip, easier than packing the kids in the car and not as hairy as a dog.

That’s one of the pitches (sorta) MantaroBot made at CES last week. The Maryland-based company has a couple different models of mobile robots that combine teleconferencing capabilities with remote control. With the basic model you put, say, an iPad into a mounting bracket, which sits on top of a stick that attaches to a mobile base.

The iPad handles the two-way video chat via Skype, and the separate control channel lets you “walk” around the room, swiveling and nodding your “head” as you go. It uses WiFi for Internet connectivity.

In addition to making inter-generational family relationships more sanitary, the MantaroBot also has enterprise applications. It’s a way to avoid traveling just to attend a single meeting.

The robot’s mobility and physical presence lets a teeping attendee walk around the room – any room, not just a dedicated telepresence facility – and join hallway and cubicle conversations. Or take a factory tour. Not quite the same thing as being there, but heaps better than hanging around on a wall monitor.

MantaroBot is compatible with Skype, Polycom and Cisco teleconferencing protocols and Webex is in the pipeline. It supports Android tablets as well as iOS devices. There’s a higher end model selling for $3,500, which includes dedicated conferencing hardware – monitor, computer, speakers, camera and microphone – and offers more functionality.

Low cost, high impact. The MantaroBot has big potential in the business world. What you do with it in your personal life is up to you.

Playing with augmented reality

by Steve Blum • , , , , , ,

Great way to meet new friends.

It'll be small development companies like Sphero that turn wearable computing products like Vuzix's headset mounted smart phone video display into genuine augmented reality (AR) devices.

The Boulder, Colorado based company already has a neat gizmo on the market. It's a white plastic sphere about the size of a tennis ball that glows in different colors and rolls around on the floor, powered by an internal motor. You control it with an iOS or Android app via a Bluetooth link.

It scoots back and forth and around and around. There are games written for it, or you can race with your friends.

It's a blast to play with. Their booth at CES last week was packed with people waiting their turn to give it a try. It's definitely a toy. But it has a potentially serious side.

One of the apps written for it lets you steer it while pointing a tablet's camera at it and watching it on screen. Fun enough. But the app superimposes an animated figure over the white ball, so viewed on the screen it looks like a cartoon character is walking around the room and interacting with people.

Potential applications include video production – you could make your own live action Roadrunner cartoon – and telepresence.

Sphero has been around about a year. Its current product retails for $129 and software developer kits are available. On board sensors include an accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetic reed switch. Battery charging is via induction, keeping the outside smooth.


Eye contact is next teeping opportunity

Telepresence is to teleconferencing as dining is to eating. One is a mechanical process, the other transforms the simple act into a complete social experience. Or so the hope goes.

Also known as teeping, the idea is to create a completely immersive environment where you forget that the person you’re talking with is not physically present. Cisco is pushing this technology hard, but hasn’t crossed the line from teleconference to telepresence.

Teeping opportunity

I spent some time in a Cisco telepresence demo room this week, during a small business symposium co-hosted by the TIA and Cisco. It’s a cool system that will eventually lead to a true teeping solution.

On the plus side, Cisco has optimized the mechanics. Camera and screen placement, conference table set up, lighting and audio are all dialed in. You can sit down and look across your table at people sitting on what looks like the other side of the room.

Part of the trick is the way the physical layout adds the illusion of depth to the flat images on the large high def screens. In a few years, 3D video technology will make it seem spooky real, but the current system gives your brain sufficient cues to start filling in the missing dimension.

The final, great hurdle is enabling two-way eye contact. Until that’s possible, it’ll be teleconferencing, not telepresence. Right now, you have a choice: look into the camera, or look into the other person’s eyes.

Cisco’s would-be telepresence facility

The current iteration lets you see body language, which is a huge step forward. But our brains are hardwired for eye contact, and you can’t connect person to person with a stranger without it.

Case in point: when I’m riding my bicycle in traffic and I want to make sure a driver sees me, I look right into his eyes. We can both be wearing sunglasses — it doesn’t matter. Our primitive, hunter-gatherer brains instantly grasp the presence of a fellow human and go into “friend or foe” mode. It’s the same whether you’re running across the savannah or sitting in a corporate meeting. A split second of two-way eye contact determines whether you’re going to share lunch or be lunch.

A solution to this problem starts with some kind of eyeball tracking system, which determines where each participants’ eyes are focused on the screen. Software would then manipulate each individual’s image so that people on the other side of the conversation accurately perceive that individual’s gaze.

This solution requires huge computational capacity and magic software, rather than raw bandwidth, so Cisco won’t solve it. But Cisco and any other aspiring teeping vendor will snap it up in an eye-blink. So who has the chops to do it?

At this month’s Santa Cruz New Tech MeetUp, two of the presenters discussed exactly this kind of image manipulation. Pixim does real-time enhancement of video feeds, mostly for security applications at this point, and Pelican Imaging is developing computational cameras that can manipulate static, 2D images through three dimensions. The event’s sponsor, Santa Cruz Imaging, is also actively developing technology in this space.

In five, maybe ten years, brute force corporate R&D will solve this problem. Until then, it’s a genuine geek opportunity.