Telepresence updates (2012)

Original article from 2002:


Norbert is a "conference robot". He is currently (Dec. 2002) a fantasy, but he could easily be built. He's a teleoperated robot intended for "videoconferencing outside the box" - he can go to a conference and look at a poster session, chat one-on-one with other attendees, or go to a trade show.

Norbert requires a wireless connection to the Internet with about 500kbps bandwidth. He uses standard videoconferencing software plus a remote-control program to tell him where to go. He has onboard CPUs to handle collision avoidance, walking and motion control. He has two microphones to hear in stereo, a loudspeaker to talk, and two cameras - a fixed wide-angle camera and a pan-tilt-zoom camera - to see with. He has an LCD screen for a face, which shows the face of his remote operator. So he can have a normal face-to-face conversation with someone.

For his intended use as a conference attendee, it doesn't matter if he's not particularly strong, or fast, or has a limited range. He only needs to be able to move at casual walking speed in a fairly simple indoor environment.

A more capable version of Norbert would be able to act as an inspector on a building site, an expert witness in a courtroom, or a consultant in a hospital.

He is taking the place of a human not because he's faster, stronger or tougher than a human - he's not - but because the human can't afford the travel time to visit the remote site

This was sent to the AG-TECH mailing list, before I found that John Shalf at LBL had already built a wheeled version for SC2001; see:

No matter how good the conferencing technology, there are some things you just can't easily do in an electronic conference, like chatting to the other attendees, or asking private questions after a session, or visiting the trade show. So I propose "Norbert the conference attendee", a personal robot to free us from the drudgery of flying to conferences in Hawaii when we could be comfortably at home watching it rain.

I have been playing with a wireless camera mounted on a toy R/C car controlled over the Internet (picture). It works, but it's a bit too close to the ground for this kind of thing. Various groups such as Honda have made big strides in humanoid robot design in the last couple of years, so it makes more sense to use that technology instead. Having some onboard intelligence is a good thing, too, so the robot won't smash things or hurt itself. Besides, I suspect that things like walking or picking up something require better than the 50ms or more latency of a long-distance network connection.

So Norbert looks a bit like Isamu (see references), except he has an LCD screen for a face. He has a speaker, a PTZ camera, and a couple of microphones with echo cancellation. He has a wireless LAN card to connect to the Internet, and the remote operator can walk him around and talk to people. He can even get them a drink. The operator has a regular monitor, videophone camera, and headset, and his/her face appears on the LCD screen so that the robot can hold a fairly normal conversation with one or more people, using facial expressions and performing movements such as turning to face someone.

Of course this has all been suggested before I don't doubt. I found a "AccessBot" intended for those with disabilities, while the novel "The Modular Man" describes a teleoperated robot good enough to fool casual onlookers that it's human (also for the disabled, in fact).


(apologies to "professor johnsey" - Altavista image search "face" - and Johnnie from the Munich Institute for Applied Mechanics).
There was (in 2002) a nice 20Mb MPEG of Johnnie walking on a treadmill at johnnie_april2002.mpg
Andrew Daviel