The Business Times recently interviewed OhmniLabs Co-founder and CPO, Tingxi Tan, who discussed the possible state of robotics after the pandemic.
Tan Tingxi, chief product officer and co-founder of OhmniLabs, says the current global situation has resulted in surging interest in the firm’s telepresence robots.
YOU are separated from your family, with no means of getting to them physically. You miss a call from them in the dead of the night. When you try to reach them again, nobody picks up. Panic ensues.
Vancouver-based Tan Tingxi never has that problem. He simply logs on to the remote-control robot docked in his parent’s Singapore home. It is his eyes and ears as he directs its movements between rooms. When he finally locates his folks, he communicates with them through the robot, too.
“You can think of telepresence as video calls on wheels, but it is more than that. The human-height of the unit, the tilting neck that allows the user to change his perspective… it all makes the experience more emotive and natural. And it beats paying neighbours to keep an eye on your family when you are far away!” says the Singaporean chief product officer and co-founder of OhmniLabs, a Silicon Valley-based telepresence robotics company.
Opening up new markets
Holding a Master’s in Computer Science, the robotics enthusiast previously worked in a research lab specialising in large-scale distributed computing and cloud computing methodologies. He was also the engineering director at an enterprise networking start-up, where he led a multidisciplinary team to make hardware and software products for cellular networks.
Mr. Tan co-founded OhmniLabs with two other partners in 2015. They were all based in North America while their parents resided in Asia, and they wanted a better solution to communicate with their families. “The telepresence robotics industry was not entirely new then, but the options on the market – largely targeted at business users – were not accessible to the domestic consumer. You have to fork out US$100,000 for top-of-the-line models and US$50,000 for mid-tier options. The most ‘affordable’ option was US$5,000. But few individuals and even homes for seniors would spend that kind of money,” notes Mr. Tan. “Being techies, we decided to build one ourselves, and made a low-cost telepresence robot that retains, or even surpasses, the functionalities of the expensive robots.”
Launched in 2017, some 2,000 units of OhmniLabs’ telepresence robots have been deployed all around the world and the current global situation has resulted in surging interest in them.
“Before, robotic telepresence was more of a novelty than a need. Now, more people are seeing it as an alternative way of interacting with the world while not being able to travel,” says Mr. Tan. “Since the start of the pandemic, we have deployed more units for telemedicine purposes that allow doctors and caregivers to provide consultations and diagnostics when they cannot be in the same room as patients. Some hospitals are also using them to improve the quality of care for patients in isolation wards by providing them with a means to interact with friends and family.”
Not limited to medical and domestic uses, Business Breakthrough University in Tokyo, Japan, recently held a virtual convocation ceremony in March via telepresence robots using OhmniLabs technology. Museums – closed during lockdowns – have also contacted OhmniLabs with an interest to create virtual guided tours.
“With the pandemic, telepresence is getting a lot of traction. People now have a better understanding of the technology,” observes Mr. Tan, “and will be more interested in contactless solutions that bridge virtual and physical worlds. Teleoperation and telemedicine will also be a big focus and companies already working in that space will see their markets take off.”
And, while the world is now plagued with news of pay cuts and lay-offs, the five-year-old company is going through the opposite. “Other companies are firing, but we are ramping up hiring,” shares Mr. Tan. “Our production has definitely been affected by global supply chains afflicted by social distancing practices enforced in workplaces, but we are diverting all our resources to fulfilling orders for hospitals and clinics using Ohmni to provide urgent care.”
The company, which employs 3D-printing technology to produce their telepresence robots, is also using spare production cycles to produce face shields that it donates to medical facilities.
The new normal
The technology’s application goes well beyond pandemic times. In Australia, OhmniLabs works with an organisation called Missing School to deploy robots to schools so bedridden children can join classes and connect with friends. It also works with a consortium of children’s hospitals in the United States that use the robots to allow young patients in isolation to take part in activities conducted within the hospitals. Such interaction has proven to be critical in keeping them motivated during their recovery.
OhmniLabs also builds custom units for clients, including ANA (All Nippon Airways) Holdings. Dubbed “Newme” robots, the remote-controlled units are designed with virtual tourism in mind. “As people live longer in isolated conditions, they will realise that there are a lot of things they can still do without physically being present. Concerts are streamed online. Museums are offering virtual tours. When airlines are grounded, virtual tourism takes off. I believe telepresence is poised to greatly enhance all these experiences.”