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The next big thing in classrooms: 'Zoom on wheels' robots are seeing a surge in demand

  • Telepresence robots are experiencing a boom in demand during the pandemic, several robotics companies reported, not just from businesses and hospitals but for classrooms, too.
  • Users can drive the robot around the room, control its "neck" to look up and down the room, flash lights to speak up, and zoom to read small text from afar — tools perfect for hands-on teaching and learning.
  • Florida mother Maggie Vo said her four-year-old daughter's Ohmni robot has helped keep her engaged, while Temple University professor Amy Caples has been able to keep her media performance class running smoothly while taking care of her 98-year-old mother.
  • Though the robots can be pricey, many companies are planning on offering leasing options and building cost-efficient options.
  • The next generation of telepresence robots will have more autonomous features, including extra motion sensors, passenger mode, and arms to turn light switches on and off. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Telepresence robots — essentially Zoom on wheels — first emerged about a decade ago. Early users ranged from business executives taking "tours" of factories to doctors making virtual rounds with patients to homebound students with chronic illnesses or disabilities.

As a result of COVID-19, however, these robots have seen a flood of new interest from people who need to stay physically distant, but socially connected. 

"Now all the sudden, you need to be somewhere else, but you cannot physically go there," said Thuc Vu, CEO and cofounder of OhmniLabs, a Silicon Valley company that develops and 3D prints the Ohmni robots in their facilities. "Telepresence is the next best thing to allow you to do so." This quarter, OhmniLabs's revenue was almost five times what it was the same quarter last year, according to Vu.

Other telepresence robotic companies told Business Insider they too have seen an uptick in sales and inquiries since the onset of the pandemic. The sales of Double Robotics, a California-based company with its latest Double 3 robot, have spiked since March and doubled since last year, according to its cofounder David Cann. 

Other makers of telepresence robots, like Vecna's VGo and GoBe, a subsidiary of the Danish company Blue Ocean Robotics that bought assets of now-defunct Suitable Technologies, also report an increase in demand. 

Read more: 5 childcare and early education startups leading the pack in the shift to virtual and pod learning

While hospitals and businesses have been among the biggest telepresence users, the robots are gaining traction in education. Schools and universities offering hybrid learning have been looking to telepresence robots to bridge the gap between students and teachers who are physically present in the classroom and those connecting remotely. 

Controlled remotely, a user can drive the robot around the room, tilt the robot's "neck," and look up and down the room by turning the screen. They can flash a light if they want to speak up and zoom in and out to read small font from a distance.

This kind of mobility and independence has advantages over static Zoom, especially in dynamic settings like a classroom full of busy kids.

To minimize the risk of COVID-19 exposure, Maggie Vo decided to keep her four-year-old daughter Thea home from preschool in Boca Raton, Florida. Instead, she sends a telepresence robot in Thea's place — an Ohmni that her company Fuel Venture Capital had invested in.  

With her mom's help navigating the 4.8-foot machine, Thea joins circle time and partners up with a classmate on crafts activities, doing the same activity in tandem at home. 

At first, Vo used FaceTime to connect with the class, but quickly found that she was dependent on the teacher to hold and move the iPad around. In control of the robot, Thea can look around the room, zoom in and out of the book during storytime, and socialize with friends.  

"So the whole idea is to have the same experience, just like being at school," Vo said. "If she just watches her class, I don't think it's helpful because with a kid, if you don't interact, you don't learn."

The only robot in the class, the device spurred some excitement at first, but now students pay more attention to Thea rather than the machine, said Jacqueline Westerfield, head of Grandview Preparatory School where Thea attends school. And the teachers don't have to wrangle the devices. 

"We've all learned that it's very difficult for teachers and students to try to manage devices and the learning at the same time, unless it's seamless," Westerfield said. "And this is really a nice example of seamless because it enables the experience, but it doesn't take over." 

Once Thea's session is done, the robot returns to its charging dock in the classroom, facing the wall for security purposes. The battery lasts about five hours. 

Read more: 'Microschool' entrepreneurs: 3 founders offering parents a safer, more personalized option for their kids and providing teachers a more lucrative career path

With telepresence robots alongside students in the classroom, the teachers are likely to treat the remote students as if they were physically there. 

"It takes a lot of skill as a teacher to make sure that you're including the people on the screen," said David Wicks, professor and chair of the digital education leadership program at Seattle Pacific University. "And robots — they have a good social presence." Robots make themselves known by repositioning themselves if they can't see or hear. "On Zoom, you kind of get forgotten about," Wicks said. 

Teachers too are benefiting from teaching via the robot, especially in cases when they need to supervise hands-on activities. 

Temple University purchased a Double 3 robot for professor Amy Caples, who takes care of her 98-year-old mother and is herself immunocompromised. But her presence was key: In her media performance class, she teaches students to work on the anchor desk, use video equipment, and set camera shots. Students first met the robot with giggles, but Caples quickly assumed her usual role. 

"I'm able to direct the entire show — doing the countdown, setting camera shots, coaching my students who are about to do their segment," Caples told Business Insider. "I feel 110% connected to the students in the studio."

Costs for these robots could be prohibitive, especially for tight budgets of schools and universities. On the higher end is GoBe, an improved successor of the early Beam Pro, with a 21.5-inch screen, super zoom features, and lifelike telepresence that costs $11,095. The company will offer a leasing option in 2021, John Hurst, vice president of sales at GoBe Robots, told Business Insider. Double 3, a compact robot that can detect obstacles with 3D sensors and has an adjustable height control, runs for $3,999.

OhmniLabs saw an opportunity for a more cost-efficient robot and released their 20-pound robot in 2017, which runs for $2,699 and is built through the additive manufacturing process, which allows for quick production and customization. Kubi, a tabletop telepresence robot by Xandex Inc., runs for $600 dollars. 

But telepresence robots are still a work in progress, according to Susan Herring, a professor of information science at Indiana University Bloomington, who studies telepresence robots and has used them to present at conferences due to her disability. Relying on strong internet connection for the robot to work means that a conversation can be interrupted when connection wavers, she said. In the past, she's struggled hearing people and having enough depth perception of those around. 

"It's hard to know how close you are to somebody," she said. And that can have social implications. "People misconstrue certain kinds of actions of the robots as inappropriate without understanding how the technology works," Herring said. 

Read more: 6 startups reshaping the education space and tackling new and innovative ways to offer online learning to K-12 students

Most telepresence robots can't navigate stairs or open doors on their own. But while only using robots has disadvantages, she noted, those have to be weighed against the disadvantages of not participating at all.

The next step for these robots is equipping them with more autonomy features. The OhmniLabs is developing extra motion sensors to navigate obstacles and arms to turn light switches on and off — a valuable asset in senior care, Vu said. 

GoBe is working to add a "passenger mode" to their robot that will allow multiple remote users to join the driver. "You could roll into a patient in a hospital and the doctor could ask that patient some questions — and one of the students could pipe up and ask a question," Hurst said.  

New technology always takes time to spread, but the COVID-19 pandemic is in some cases accelerating the adoption rate. "We're benefiting from that in terms of the adaptability curve," Hurst said. "And people are viewing this as a way of, 'Hey, how can I make this work?'"

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