I once spent a week testing out a telepresence robot in the Fast Company office--using a Skype-like interface on my laptop to control what looked like a Segway with a head, bumping into walls and getting confused looks from colleagues the whole time. It was fun, but not particularly useful for everyday office life.
Now iRobot (the company behind Roomba) and InTouch Health (who makes in-hospital robots) have teamed up to create a telepresence robot that has some legitimate real-world applications. The RP-VITA telemedicine robot, a 5-foot-4-inch sturdy robot with a face-sized screen perched on top of its trunk, is designed to let doctors be with patients virtually when they can’t get there in person.
The bot is tricked out with all sorts of technology: two high-definition cameras; a microphone; mapping and Obstacle Detection Obstacle Avoidance abilities; autonomous navigation, which lets doctors send the robot to a specific location with a single click instead of guiding it; a built-in digital stethoscope; a place to plug in a variety of medical devices (including ultrasound machines and heart monitors) and the ability for doctors to view streaming video coming from them; and access to digital health records.
The RP-VITA would be useful in areas of the developing world where specialists aren’t easily found, but the reality is that it’s probably too expensive, with a price tag of between $4,000 and $6,000 per month for the cloud-based service. It’s more likely that RP-VITA will be used in acute care situations, where a doctor might be needed immediately but they aren’t close enough to get to the emergency in person.
And don’t worry, the fully robotic hospital isn’t imminent: The RP-VITA doesn’t have arms, so it still needs some assistance from flesh-and-blood humans.