CES 2019: New arms, eyes for robot designed to be your avatar

Remote viewing? Telepresence has been ever-present at CES for years now, but can it really catch on?

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Silicon Valley-based OhmniLabs, maker of the Ohmni telepresence robot, is giving its creation a few new peripherals. Dubbed the Ohmni Supercam, an updated version of the robot will utilize a high definition camera, allowing users to take 13MP snapshots during video calls. There's also a new developer version of Ohmni that includes teleoperated robotic arms.

Telepresence robots remotely embody people in settings like offices, schools, and hospitals. Typically, the mobile avatars are teleoperated by the remote user, allowing them to traipse down halls and turn to face speakers. The category hasn't caught on like many predicted it would, though prognosticators still see a bright future for robots made by the likes of Ohmni and arch rival Double Robotics.

Inclusion of the new camera is a bid by Ohmni to solve a problem common with video conferencing: Content on whiteboards and paper is difficult to see over video, and the stills made from video capture in telepresence systems don't produce crisp images.

"The ability to read a handout or actually see what is written on the board is game-changing for anyone using telepresence robots," says Jared Go, co-founder and CTO of OhmniLabs. "We also predict that it will enhance the ways telepresence can be applied in new industries, such as health care and manufacturing."

Whether a sharper eye is enough to win over customers remains to be seen. The new unit costs nearly $2K, which is a tough purchase to justify to IT when most companies already have functional (albeit highly annoying) video conferencing platforms. The case could be doubly hard to make given that telepresence systems, still relatively new, will likely need a thorough security vetting from a corporate IT department. These things are literally roving sensors beaming information out of the building, after all.

But to the converted, it's only a matter of time before the rest of the world comes around to the joys of telepresence. And the labor is still tight, meaning employers will be looking beyond geographical proximity for qualified candidates. Users on both sides of the remote work equation report more natural, nuanced, and intimate interactions when speaking with colleagues via a telepresence robot. 


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Ohmni also has a new developer version of its robot available. Unlike the consumer version, which is essentially a beefed up rolling iPad, the developer version has actuated carbon fiber arms. 

The developer version will be particularly useful to research institutions, giving grad labs a robust mobile robot platform, as well as entrepreneurs bringing white label robots to market.

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