Cost and engineering constraints mean most telepresence robots are variants on the iPad-on-a-stick form factor. But they don’t have to be. Just look at this prototype telepresence bot built by engineers from Japan’s Keio University and the University of Tokyo. It’s basically a robot backpack with two arms and a head that can be operated remotely by a human using a VR headset and controllers. It’s fun, ingenious, and even slightly cute.
The bot is called Fusion, and its form is supposed to encourage collaboration and learning at a distance, says lead designer Yamen Saraiji. Speaking to The Verge, Saraiji says he wanted to create a “body-sharing experience,” so he placed the robot’s arms directly behind the wearer while outfitting the bot with stereo vision and 3D binaural audio.
The robotic arms are the most interesting part of the setup, and they can be used in a number of different configurations. They can move freely by themselves, be controlled by the host, or they can even attach to the wearers’ arms using wrist cuffs to move the human about.
This last mode is what really makes the bot unique. As Saraiji explains, it could have a number of uses. For example, “an expert can guide new practitioners on how to operate certain instruments or to assist them remotely without the need of their physical presence.” Or, it could help with the rehabilitation process for people in physical therapy. The elderly could even use it to pass on their physical skills to the next generation.
There are some kinks to be worked out first, though. Fusion is just a prototype, and it has a number of minor flaws that limit smooth operation. For a start, the arms work at a bit of lag, says Saraiji, which can be disorientating. Similarly, the view for the telepresence user — which is off to the side of the wearer’s head — can take some getting used to. And since this is just a prototype, there’s no guarantee that it will ever become a commercial project.
But Fusion does suggest an interesting direction for the future of telepresence robots. Lots of work is being done to give humans supernumerary limbs and create surrogate telepresence robots. Combining the two could create something even more exciting.