Telemba Turns Your Old Roomba and Tablet Into a Telepresence Robot

Photo: Telemba

Meet Telemba, which its creators say is the "world's cheapest telepresence robot."

Like other telepresence robots, Telemba works as your robotic body at a remote location: using a computer, you can drive Telemba around and interact with people remotely. You see what the robot sees, and you can attend meetings or just hang out with friends.

Telemba was created by a team of Japanese roboticists who wanted to design a simplified and inexpensive telepresence robot. After testing and improving their initial prototypes, they decided to put their project on Kickstarter. For $170 you can get a Telemba Basic [pictured above] and for $150 you get a shorter version, called the Telemba Mini.

But there's a catch: the Roomba and Android tablet you need to use Telemba are not included. Well, you didn't expect to get all that for just $170, did you? So, yes, Telemba is actually a robotic kit that lets you turn your old Roomba and Android tablet into a cool new robot.

The Telemba team says they adopted this approach because they believe lots of people have outdated Roombas and tablets that they don't use anymore, and also because they think existing telepresence robots cost too much.

Indeed, even the cheapest models available on the market cost more than what people might want to spend on a mobile communication robot (Double sells for $2,500 and it requires an iPad, and the new Beam+ from Suitable Technologies is on pre-order for $1,495).

The Telemba project is led by Ryosuke "Ron" Tajima, and the team includes Kei Okada, a professor at the University of Tokyo, and other researchers from the JSK Lab—the same lab that spun off SCHAFT, the robotics startup that won the DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials and was acquired by Google.

If you back the project—and if it does get funded—Telemba will send you all you need to set up your robot. The hardware part seems easy enough: you attach the Telemba frame to your Roomba, and plug a cable to the Roomba Open Interface port. The frame has a pole, and at the top you attach your tablet and connect another cable to it.

But I wonder if the software part is also easy. Telemba uses Google Hangout as the video communication platform, and a web-based app to drive the robot remotely. Having tested a bunch of telepresence robots—and having helped an IEEE Spectrum colleague build his own DIY machine—I can say that the software side (the user interface) is what makes the experience good or bad.

In fact, one complicating factor is that Telemba requires a server to work. The server establishes a link between the web-based app and a Telemba control module, which in turns drives the Roomba. Telemba uses MQTT, a machine-to-machine connectivity protocol that is becoming popular with "Internet of Things" projects.

The advantage of using a MQTT server is that it makes it easier for the robot to operate behind firewalls. The Telemba team says it will configure the robot to use a publicly available MQTT server as default, but users who prefer to set up their own custom servers can do that as well.

Telemba works with Roomba 500 series and newer, and its creators say they used a Nexus 7 tablet in their setup but that the robot should work with other phones and tablets with Android 4.0 or later. (They have no plans for an iOS version at the moment, but that's a possibility if they get more resources.)

So if you have a Roomba and Android tablet collecting dust somewhere, go on Kickstarter and help fund Telemba. Because any project that seeks to transform our old gadgets into robots is something we most definitely want to support.

[ Telemba ]

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