Sure, they laughed when it showed up on “The Big Bang Theory,” in 2012.
But who’s laughing now?
In “The Cruciferous Vegetable” episode, Sheldon decided he needs to extend his lifespan, and the best way to stay healthy was to stay at home, away from the risks of everyday life and any stray viruses, etc. (sound familiar?). So he creates his Mobile Virtual Presence Device, which his friend penny calls the “Shelbot,”
Making his way in the world with a mechanical proxy looked wacky at the time, but put it in the COVID show, and it becomes at least a remote possibility.
Not so remote, in fact — except for how it operates. People in robotics know them as Virtual Presence (or Virtual Telepresence) Devices. And they’re up and rolling. You can buy one from Amazon or B&H right now.
They’re remote-controlled robots on wheels – like a Segway with interactive video screen, usually some sort of tablet. The screen shows real-time video of the person behind the machine; the person “driving” the robot remotely can roll around his or her robot’s space, talk to, or look more closely at, anything he or she wants from the safety/comfort/virus-free home environment.
The best ones are able to rotate 360 degrees, have a guidance system so they don’t bash into things (like other VPDs at JazzFest, or other people’s carts at the supermarket), and have the ability to be personalized (Shelbot sported one of Sheldon’s nerdy T-shirts on a hanger).
A lot of this technology has been used in education — allowing home-bound children to actually participate in the classroom. Using the VPD, they can participate like most of their classmates, participating in conversations, story time, going from classroom to classroom, interacting with other students -=- it turns out that the other students really begin to treat the robots like they are part of the class.
OK, they can’t open doors and they can’t manage stairs, but they’re a step beyond ZOOM, yes?
Tech companies have already jumped on the various ways their inventiions
OhmniLabs, one of the big players in telepresence devices, is sending robots to hospitals to connect quarantined COVID patients with their families, and donating them to care organizations to enable virtual visits with seniors who are isolated at home. Double Robotics has reported increased demand and is working with a skeleton crew to fill urgent orders.
Of course, right now, the VPDs are high-demand and, well, out of the range of a lot of us – models from the main companies, like Double Robotics, Ohmni, Padbot and Beam, run anywhere from $2,100 and going to $5,000. I’ve seen older models on sale for as little as $150 (though I wouldn’t vouch for the sellers). You could snag one with that incentive check that came in the mail… but you might want to save that for face masks and sanitizer.
Then again, if you had one of these robots, you wouldn’t need any of that. Just pull up to the Piggly Wiggly, activate the automatic door opener, and let your ‘bot — kitted out with a wire basket ’round its neck — roll in.
You can sit outside and ask the supermarket employee, “Hey, would you please get that Cap’n Crunch down off the shelf and put it in my basket?”
But in times like these, the definition of crazy could change any second…