Anyone who has made a video call knows its limitations: holding up a phone or tablet is cumbersome, silences are awkward, and the interaction itself can be a bit artificial.
OhmniLabs uses robots to transform simple video calls into “telepresence,” a more natural and immersive form of communication. The Santa Clara, California-based company designs rolling robots with a mounted display and hardware. A user can call in to the robot, connect, and move the robot around its space using a controller.
While this might seem like a minor difference from traditional video callds, Co-Founder and CEO Dr. Thuc Vu, PhD points out that it actually changes the experience dramatically. “Our telepresence robot makes the experience of being there more authentic,” says Vu, citing a recent example in which he sent an Ohmni robot to his grandmother in Vietnam. “She can continue cooking, while I drive around, poke my nose into ingredients, pots and pans and ask her questions about her recipes. I don’t have to wait for her to charge a phone or computer, and she doesn’t have to hold up the phone the entire time or sit in front of a desk.”
These authentic connections are enabled by thoughtful engineering within each robot. Dual wide-angle cameras with a tilting display give a broad view, a far-field microphone and speaker allow users to hear and speak across a room, and a 5-6-hour battery life with ability to auto-dock to a charging station ensures that a connection is almost always available.
The $1,500 price tag may seem steep, but people are buying in. “Since our launch on Indiegogo in April 2017, we have shipped hundreds of robots around the world,” says Vu. “In 2018 alone, more than 20,000 calls were made using our Ohmni telepresence robots.”
Beyond connecting with family far away, the company points out the many other use cases for its robots. Physicians using telemedicine may be able to engage patients better, and students who miss school can sit in to their classrooms, listening, moving, and speaking as if they were actually present.
Given the superiority of telepresence over traditional video call, OhmniLabs hopes to make its robots accessible to anyone who might benefit. Although the young company has seen success so far, “we’re working hard to bring our telepresence robots to more people and introducing more use cases and applications in various industries,” says Vu.
Vu also notes that a developer edition of the robot is in the future. “We also want to help others build their own robots using the Ohmni Robot Developer Edition, so we’re cultivating a community of roboticists to make the Ohmni telepresence robots more helpful by accelerating the adoption of robots in the home.”
In the end, however, OhmniLab’s biggest selling point may not be its hardware and software capabilities, but the telepresence that those capabilities facilitate. “We’re excited about how robots can positively impact people’s lives.”