Most telepresence robots are designed for business use. They’re expensive, but the argument is that they work significantly better than a phone call and they pay for themselves since you don’t have to spend so much time and money traveling instead. We’ve reviewed telepresence robots in the past, and while in our experience the being-better-than-a-phone-call thing is definitely true, it’s still difficult for most people to justify getting one for personal use.
OhmniLabs, a Silicon Valley robotics startup with CMU roots (they’re advised by Manuela Veloso) wants to make telepresence robots easy and affordable enough that people start using them to stay connected with their families. In order for that to work, their telepresence robot (called Ohmni) is designed to be as independent as possible—you can send it to someone who isn’t at all comfortable with tech, and they can take it out of the box, turn it on, and it’ll just work. It’s potentially ideal for family members who you don’t live close to, or elderly family members who you like to talk to (and check up on) regularly. It seems like a good idea in theory, so we decided to give it a try.
Rather than doing this review myself, I had OhmniLabs ship a robot to my partner’s grandfather, Gerry. In his late 80s, he lives in an apartment in New Jersey with 24/7 care. Gerry is mostly confined to a wheelchair and has a mild form of dementia, although he’s able to chat with people and loves to talk with his family.
Despite living over an hour away, my partner’s father makes the drive to visit Gerry several times a week, supplemented with phone calls several times a day. It’s a big time investment, which he is of course happy to make, but I wanted to see to what extent Ohmni would be able to make Gerry feel more connected while perhaps making the distance less of an issue. And for other people in Gerry’s family, located farther away, Ohmni might give them a chance to interact with him more often, and in a more engaging and fulfilling way.