Audio and videoconferences have been a necessary evil in the world of distributed, global, always-on companies.  But if your idea of videoconferences is still wedded to the notion of a white room with a camera in it, you might want to take a look at telepresence.

Unlike traditional videoconferencing, where all the equipment is in a room and you or the remote person have to go to the room, telepresence puts all the equipment on wheels so it can travel. Sometimes the equipment can even be programmed to move, which is why some telepresence devices are known as telepresence robots. Think of an iPad on a stick connected to a Segway.

“It is a remote-controlled ambulatory device equipped with a display to enable video chat and conference. Its basic equipment includes a microphone, a video camera, and a wireless transmitter that enables the robot to communicate via an Internet connection,” writes Research and Markets in its recent report, Global Telepresence Robots Market 2016-2020. “Using the latest artificial-intelligence software and sensors, telepresence robots can be empowered to walk independently in hallways and corridors without collisions, and even access staircases due to the presence of specialized sensors and artificial intelligence.”

The advantage of telepresence—and the reason it’s being considered for many more uses than traditional videoconferencing—is specifically that it can go places. “The visualization provided by the telepresence robot is not reproducible by the smartphone and large telepresence systems are not mobile,” writes Susan Eustis of WinterGreen Research in its report, Telepresence Robots Market, Share, Driving Forces, Company Analysis and Future Forecasts to 2022.” So ultimately all people will want access to telepresence robots in order to move around and see for themselves what is going on in another place.”

To a certain extent, telepresence robots are related to the robotic tools used by the military and law enforcement to defuse mines and bombs, and for the same reason. “Telepresence robots can go where no man or woman can go, they can go safer, they can go faster, they can provide a presence that might not be achieved in any other way,” Eustis writes. “There are more civil uses for telepresence robots: in education, healthcare, business, and manufacturing. People can drive a telepresence robot around a work environment, around a school, around a hospital to reach people that they might otherwise have a difficult time contacting.” In the future, they might even perform repairs, he adds.

In particular, telepresence robots could be used in telehealth, such as in diagnosing stroke, where minutes count, Eustis writes. In the same way that public places often have defibrillators, future ones might have a telepresence robot in case of emergency.

They can be used in the office as well. Users of the systems report that they make it easier to feel more connected to other people in the office, as well as giving them more flexibility in their remote location.

“In our office, telepresence robots are no longer a novelty, but an everyday tool we’ve been using to enable our remote team members to be more engaged,” writes Peter Hirst in TechCrunch. “What we all enjoy is the ability to be truly present in our interactions with colleagues and clients—an experience that feels much more natural and personal than a phone call or a videoconference. You may not be able to shake someone’s hand (yet!), but you can maintain eye contact as you talk, you can turn to look at someone else around the table and you have an actual seat in the room as you would physically.”

“Using a tele-robot gives a remote worker a physical manifestation that’s easier to include in conversations,” writes CyberTrend.

And telepresence is big business. A number of recent reports have examined various aspects of the telepresence market:

  • Research and Markets predicts that the global telepresence robots market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 53.62 percent during the period 2016-2020.
  • MarketsandMarkets predicts that the global market is expected to reach $2.63 billion by 2022, at a CAGR of 19.6 percent between 2016 and 2022, for the overall telepresence market—including hardware, software, and service components, as well as several kinds of telepresence.
  • Eustis says the telepresence robot device market was at $825 million in 2015 and anticipates it to reach $7 billion by 2022.

Future developments of the robotics platform include grippers and cameras, sensors, and more sophisticated navigation software, Eustis adds.

Admittedly, telepresence robots are no panacea. They can suffer from the same dropout and communications problems as any conference call, and they can be difficult to maneuver, particularly in cluttered areas, CyberTrend reports. But they certainly seem to be an improvement over the classic white room.

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