Robots with your face want to invade workplaces and hospitals

Jun 10, 2013

Clay Dillow has been contributing to Fortune since 2013, writing frequently about technology, aerospace, and defense.

Cisco wants you to meet.

FORTUNE -- Robotic telepresence remains one of those technologies that is always lingering just on the horizon; it’s going to change everything, the futurists say, just as soon as it gets here. But while several clever telerobotics solutions have come to market in recent years (Vgo and Double Robotics for instance), no solution has yet been both sophisticated and user-friendly enough for the mainstream. These robots -- designed to give a remote human operator control of a mobile surrogate robot so that, for instance, a company manager in Chicago can virtually tour a factory floor in Topeka -- allow users to move around an environment and interact with people and objects on the other side of the city, country, or planet. But for the most part, telerobots remain high-priced toys.

Bedford, Mass.,-based iRobot (IRBT) believes it’s finally changed that. The company -- perhaps best known for its adorable, automated floor-sweeping Roomba robots -- has a long, established record of understanding its customer, adequately maturing its technologies, and producing the right solution for its end users, whether that user is an immaculately clean apartment-dweller or a Navy explosives ordnance disposal specialist disarming IEDs in Afghanistan. (iRobot builds those robots too.) Earlier this year iRobot quietly rolled out its RP-VITA telemedicine robot in seven North American hospitals (six in the U.S. and one in Mexico City), and how they are received in the hospital environment could spell big things not only for iRobot and its technology partner InTouch Health, but for telerobotics at large.

“We’ve been building robots and working on the remote presence problem for well over a decade, and the one thing we have come to realize is that the difference between a cool prototype and a product is huge,” says iRobot CEO Colin Angle. In RP-VITA, Angle says, the company has finally developed a real telerobotics product, and if it can survive the rigors of the fast-paced, sometimes frenetic hospital environment, there’s no reason why robots like RP-VITA couldn’t work anywhere. Success for RP-VITA could mark the beginning of a trend.

Telemedicine isn’t a bad place to start. Modern medicine has sprawled into an often confusing array of specializations -- currently there are something like 150 different recognized medical specialties and sub-specialties; at the middle of the last century there were roughly a dozen -- and it’s here that telemedicine has found a great deal of room for growth. Santa Barbara, Calif.,-based InTouch Health creates interfaces, apps, and remote presence solutions for the health care industry that are now in more than 700 hospitals, allowing doctors -- generally specialists at larger, urban hospitals -- to digitally teleconference themselves to a patient’s bedside and converse with both nurses and patients over live audio and video connections.

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RP-VITA. Paging Dr. Robot?

Today, the company doubled down on the idea by introducing its second big partner for the AVA platform: Cisco (csco). The networking giant will work with iRobot on the Ava 500 telepresence robot, which looks much like the VITA. The Ava is controlled via iPad, allowing users to choose pick a destination on a map or from a list of employee, names, and rooms they want the device to navigate to. So directed, the robot travels autonomously, avoiding people and other obstacles on its way. When a meeting is finished, the robot returns to its base for charging.

But it is in medicine that the concept faces its most rigorous tests. The problem with the current spate of telerobotics is really one of complexity. Simple robots can only perform simple tasks, and complex robots require training -- and sometimes a separate roboticist -- to operate. The most advanced telemedicine robots, for example, must either be physically moved from place to place by a nurse or remotely piloted  via keyboard controls or a joystick from the user end. These solutions exist out of necessity, addressing a supply and demand problem where specialists are concerned. They do allow doctors to be in more places than he or she could otherwise physically be, but they don’t necessarily make doctors or nurses more efficient. In fact, the opposite is often true. Every minute a highly trained neurointensivist spends driving a robot around is a minute spent working far below his or her pay grade. And when nurses and doctors aren’t operating at the top of their licenses, says InTouch Health CEO Yulun Wang, the system is bleeding time and talent.

Robotics should amplify efficiency rather than stunt it, and that’s why iRobot believes that in RP-VITA it finally has a real telerobotics product rather than another fun-for-minutes toy. “No one likes technology for technology’s sake,” says iRobot’s Angle. “Often it complicates people’s lives rather than simplifies it.” With RP-VITA, iRobot engineers wanted something anyone could use intuitively with a minimum of training, and they wanted something that could handle tasks that didn’t require a nurse’s or doctor’s specific skills on its own, freeing the health care practitioners to worry about providing health care. “The idea that the doctor was going to spend time driving the robot or ask the nurse to push the robot was a non-starter.”

Two key technology pieces bridged the gap from prototype to product. First, iRobot partnered with InTouch Health to generate a user interface that virtually every doctor is already fluent in: the touch-controlled language of the iPad. Then, on the hardware side, iRobot engineers went to work imbuing RP-VITA with an autonomous navigation system that relies on preprogrammed interior maps of hospitals to plot routes from one place to the next as well as onboard navigational sensors to ensure the robot doesn’t collide with anything or anyone along the way. Now a doctor making rounds in Chicago who wants to check up on a patient in Topeka can pull out his tablet, instruct an RP-VITA to move to that patient’s room, and then use the time while the robot is traveling to visit another patient in Chicago or to pull up charts or records he needs for an upcoming consultation. He can get a cup of coffee or use the restroom. The point is, a skilled internist or nurse isn’t sitting around driving a robot.

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InTouch Health CEO Yulun Wang describes this as the MP3 to iPod step for telemedicine. On the medical side, RP-VITA is the first self-navigating robot, and the first that can be directed with simple commands via an iPad app. Class II certification from the FDA means that doctors can use RP-VITA for active patient monitoring -- that is, the doctor can consult with the patient and prescribe care to that patient in real time, no different from if the doctor were right there in the room. This certification is an important distinction between RP-VITA and some other telemedicine setups; It allows for various medical device attachments (like ultrasound imagers, for instance, to augment the RP-VITA so a physician can actually diagnose and prescribe care rather than just talk and listen.

In other words, RP-VITA can be a very technologically complex platform, so much so that the FDA formally recognizes it as a medical device (and not just an iPad on wheels). But on the user end, that complexity is masked behind an intuitive, app-driven touchscreen user interface and the self-navigating technology that removes that huge layer of inefficiency that shrouds most remote presence robots. Or, as Angle would say, it’s a real product.

“That’s why I make the analogy of the MP3 player to iPod,” Wang says. “A lot fewer people had the MP3 player because it was just a hassle to get your music organized, get it onto your MP3 player, and then to use it. Then when the iPod came out, along with the iTunes store, it just became easy. But it took a lot of complexity to transition from the MP3 player to the iPod. That’s what’s happening here.”

There are quite a few robots out there being used for patient care, Wang says, all of them involving a nurse pushing a cart, a joystick control, or some added layer of difficulty. As such, the penetration of the market has been fairly minimal. The hospitals currently using telepresence robots are the early adopters. The rest of the marketplace -- and that doesn’t just include the health care space, but anywhere telerobotics might make an impact -- is still waiting for the iPod moment.

“To get this concept adopted by the mainstream, to get it to proliferate throughout the market where health care in general can experience the benefits of telemedicine and remote presence, we had to make it simpler and simpler to use,” Wang says. “So simple that you can just pull out your iPad Mini, tap on the VITA you want and where you want it to go, and it just goes there.”

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On the medical side, the initial rollout of the technology is relatively small -- four hospitals in California (including UCLA medical center in Los Angeles), Ohio State Wexner Medical Center in Colombus, St. Mary’s Medical Center in Huntington, West Va., and the Instituto de Salud del Estado de México in Mexico City. In all cases it will primarily be used in the treatment of suspected stroke cases, thus highlighting one of remote telepresence’s greatest abilities: putting the right person in the right room to deal with the right situation, regardless of where that person might physically be. Strokes are difficult to diagnose and can grow exponentially more damaging with every minute that is lost, yet the national supply of top-tier neurologists capable of diagnosing and treating stroke victims is spread relatively thin across the U.S. (and spread even thinner elsewhere). RP-VITA’s primary objective is to prove that it can efficiently distribute that medical expertise to the places it’s needed most at the time it’s needed, creating better patient care across the entire health care system.

If it’s successful and RP-VITA and systems like it are accepted into the mainstream of patient care, the reverberations will be felt far beyond the health care industry. If these robots can hack it in the fast-paced, sometimes disorganized, and often frenetic hospital environment, then acting as couriers in large office settings or extra sets of eyes or hands in shipping warehouses or factory floors should be simple enough, Angle says. “We can already make a strong statement to other industries,” he says. “If hospitals trust us and the FDA trusts us to be in their hospitals, then autonomously navigating robots in your building really ought to work.”

In other words, RP-VITA’s acceptance into the vast world of health care will accelerate the acceptance of robots into other corners of our lives, Angle says. If he’s right, the advent of RP-VITA could mark the moment when telerobotics come in from the horizon and helper robots shed their novelty and start becoming a conventional part of everyday life.

“The Apple Newton failed because it was a great idea that wasn’t usable enough,” Angle says, “whereas the iPad succeeded because it got enough right. The remote presence industry has the same challenge. It’s relatively straightforward to build a really bad, minutes-of-fun telepresence robot. It’s taken over a decade of learning and attempts to get something that a busy professional who is not a technologist would view as an easy-to-use tool. I think we’ll see RP-VITA as the first remote presence product that gains traction in the world.”

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