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.
How Does Ohmni Work?
Here’s an intro to Ohmni from their successful Indiegogo campaign:
And here are all of the specs, for people who like specs.
Ohmni is built in California, and many of the parts you’ll find on the robot itself are 3D-printed to help keep costs down. This is a bit unusual—we see lots of 3D-printed parts on prototypes to help designers iterate quickly, most of the time followed by injection molded parts once a design is finalized. In principle, there isn’t a problem with a production robot using 3D-printed parts, as long as you don’t mind the look and it stands up to wear and tear.
The basic functionality of Ohmni is much like other telepresence robots, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s designed to provide good audio and video streaming, with a decent camera, screen (the tablet is included), and audio system, although you’ll need similar hardware on the other end to properly take advantage of it—the built-in webcam on your laptop will do, but you’ll generally have better luck with headphones and an external mic and camera. A robust and reliable internet connection, on both ends, is also a requirement. Ohmni is statically stable, and has no trouble navigating over most hardwood floors, carpets, and rugs, although you can only drive it down a flight of stairs once.
This review is about whether Ohmni’s unique features make it more appealing as a personal communication system for family members who aren’t necessarily tech savvy. So this review isn’t about what I think of the robot; it focuses primarily on the experience of my partner’s family with Ohmni, and I quote them extensively throughout the post (using their initials, for privacy). Most of them are fairly comfortable with technology, but I doubt that they’d ever considered using a telepresence robot before. Our hope is that their perspective will help you make a better decision about whether this is something your family might actually use and enjoy.
Setting Up Ohmni
Before OhmniLabs shipped us our review unit, we provided them with the login information to Gerry’s home Wi-Fi network, which they programmed into the robot before boxing it up (that’s an option available to any user who wants it set up that way). The robot arrives at its destination slightly folded into a giant box and mostly charged, and with the Wi-Fi already configured, you can just unfold it and turn it on and it’s good to go. The idea is that you can send Ohmni to someone who barely knows what a Wi-Fi network is, much less how to set up a robot, and they’ll be able to get it running without any trouble.
This was mostly our experience; the way that Ohmni works is not completely self-explanatory, but there is a card that comes in the box that points you to a comprehensive set of online tutorials (including videos). Once it was plugged in and turned on, the robot connected itself and was fully operational.
Gerry decided to name the robot Abner. One immediate critic of Abner was Charlie, Gerry’s dog:
Here’s how one of Gerry’s family members describes the situation:
“Charlie was deeply unsettled by Abner. I don’t know if there’s anything OhmniLabs could do to make the robot more dog-friendly, but it was kind of annoying dealing with Charlie’s constant barking whenever Abner moved. I bet this is less of an Abner problem and more of a Charlie problem.” —KF
Charlie did eventually get used to Abner, and more recently, we’ve heard that she’ll even lay her head on Abner’s base when someone is using the robot. Someone she likes, anyway.
To use Ohmni, you simply log in with your Google or Facebook credentials at the OhmniLabs website on Google Chrome. Any robots you have access to will appear there, and you can click on one to start the call—as long as the robot is turned on and available, there’s no need for anyone on the other end to do anything. Ohmni will power up, announce who’s calling, and then be under remote control.
The driving interface is very simple, and requires literally zero training (albeit some practice), as several of Gerry’s family members describe:
“The learning was seamless. I’d never used a robot like this before, but I’ve played enough first-person video games to have a pretty intuitive understanding of how it worked. The forward-facing and downward-facing camera combination were all I needed, and it was very easy for me to figure out how to move around.” —KF
“I think everything from the interface to the navigation would be incredibly intuitive and second nature to any millennial. Anybody who’s used to that type of interface will have no problem with it. For some of the people my age and older, there was a slight learning curve.” —EJF
“I am Gerry’s sister and, no doubt, the oldest of the guests using the robot. As the oldest, my computer skills are probably the weakest. It took more than one attempt to get signed on. Probably accessing the computer app was my biggest challenge, but the sign-in was easy. And there I was in the dining room and ready to park Abner directly across the table and feel as if I was joining my brother for breakfast. With practice, even driving and parking became easier.” —SA
While it’s simple to give other users permission to use Ohmni by sending an invitation to their email, it doesn’t seem to come with any kind of mandatory tutorial, which might be beneficial to a new user. The basic functionality is immediately obvious, but things like how to properly dock the robot and some information about how Ohmni announces itself when powered on would have been appreciated by our users.
Ohmni comes with a drive-on dock for charging. A successful docking requires some careful driving, so OhmniLabs has thoughtfully included a self-docking feature based around an optical tag on the dock. As long as you’re close enough, this works reasonably well, although with a bit of practice, manual docking (or, “parking”) isn’t too difficult.
Audio and video quality is about what you’d expect—totally decent and usable, and performs well in low light. Using typical telepresence etiquette on both sides can significantly improve the experience: good lighting, a mic and headphones, that sort of thing. As long as you’re careful to dock Ohmni when it’s not in use, it should have plenty of battery life—OhmniLabs estimates 5 hours, and we never had battery issues unless the robot was accidentally left undocked (and it will warn you if this happens).
How Useful is Ohmni?
The big question with Ohmni is whether or not the experience it gives both you and the person you’re talking to is worth the significant premium you pay to be able to use it. While I don’t think anyone (including OhmniLabs) would try to argue that Ohmni is just as good as being there in person, it does have to be significantly better than a phone call to be justifiable, and it also has to compare favorably to more affordable but stationary video communications systems like Kubi or Amazon’s Echo Show. So how did it do with Gerry’s family? Here are some of their comments:
“Once I was in front of Gerry with Ohmni’s camera and screen engaged, he was able to focus in and enjoy. It made for a richer communication than a phone call and it’s easier for him to access than Skype or FaceTime since I was able to be in control. While not as good as in person, it was a meaningful step closer than a phone… and saved a lot of commuting time!” —JF
“While the call was going on it felt better than a phone call, since I could see his facial reactions to things. Not quite as good as an in-person visit, but that’s probably not surprising. It didn’t feel very different from our usual activity of sitting at the table together, just through a screen instead of in person. If we were going on a walk or something I could believe I would have noticed some problems, but standing still it did great. Since Gerry doesn’t move around much, I’m not sure how much of an improvement this was over traditional video chat. I’m pretty sure we could have used FaceTime on an iPad or something, set on Gerry’s table, to accomplish the same thing much more easily. It’s worth noting that while we could have probably figured out a way to set up video chat, we didn’t, and we did set up Abner. Maybe it’s too much to ask of Gerry to keep an iPad charged and ready to FaceTime, and easier for us to make sure Abner was always ready to go.” —KF
“I have not used it myself, but I have been there when [Gerry] gets a call. He really likes it, and reacts well to the face to face. I think it’s great for him.” —AH
“It was... different than a phone call. I liked being able to see Gerry, I liked being able to move around a bit, and I liked not having to worry about him being able to operate the telephone— sometimes he struggles to get the phone up to his ear, so he can’t hear you. It wasn’t as good as being there in person, at all. It felt weird to leave without giving him a hug, but I know he gets lonely and he seemed to perk up when someone was on Abner. It lets us have a sort of halfway contact with him when we can’t visit in person. I would keep using it; I like it better than calling, and I can’t see him as much as I would like.” —EHF
“Abner arrived at Gerry’s home just as my summer visits were coming to an end; I have lived in Florida for over 54 years and can no longer deal with the cold northern climate. Abner was definitely more fun than the traditional phone call. It was so much more personal being able to chat while seeing each other. Second best to actually being there. I think that Gerry benefited greatly by having the ability to see each other as we spoke. He felt as if he had company and I know I felt wonderful seeing him smile and laugh as we conversed. I would certainly love to be able to continue our visits going forward. That will benefit me as well as [Gerry] getting us through the winter months without an in person visit.” —SA
“I contacted Gerry more using Abner, because of his engagement with it. Before, I would usually call at noon, and maybe around dinner. With Abner, I’d call at least twice a day. It’s a bright point of Gerry’s days; it’s not as good as somebody visiting, but it’s better than a phone call. It’s more engaging than other forms of contact.” —EJF
I’d also mention an experience that I’ve had with mobile telepresence robots— they can provide a sense of remote embodiment, of independent agency, that’s very distinct from something that doesn’t move. This is a tricky thing to explain, but it results in a sense of “being there” that you don’t get otherwise, and can enable a much different kind of casual, comfortable remote interaction. (You can read more about this in my review of the Double 2.)
The other aspect of mobility that we should address was that Abner has the ability to move from room to room. Gerry has in-home help and people to come check on him if he needs it, but many elderly people aren’t in that situation. If necessary, Abner can be used to check in on someone (as long as they aren’t up or down stairs), which could provide some valuable peace of mind if for whatever reason the person you’re worried about isn’t answering the phone. If that person doesn’t want to be reached, though, things can get a little complicated.
Ohmni and Privacy
One of the concerns that we heard about using Ohmni was that it sometimes felt too easy—since Ohmni can be logged into whenever it’s on, and part of the point is that it’s always on, using the robot without checking with the person on the other end first (by phone, say) can feel invasive.
“I have one major criticism of the robot, which is that I was able to connect to it at any time, with or without Gerry’s permission. This felt very different from a phone call or typical video chat, and definitely different from an in-person visit, since it meant I might have been connecting to Abner when Gerry was doing something where he might have liked some privacy. I certainly didn’t want to somehow remotely walk in on him in a compromising situation and make both of us uncomfortable.” —KF
“I felt somewhat uncomfortable just telepresence-ing in, and I wanted to verify that it would be a good time beforehand, and since that took a text or phone call it was just as potentially troublesome. The one time I did sign in without checking first, he wasn’t at home, and that felt very strange.” —EHF
It’s possible to put Ohmni into a “do not disturb” mode locally through its tablet, but that wasn’t something Gerry was likely to do, and it partially defeats the purpose of having Ohmni so easy to access in the first place.
We asked OhmniLabs founder Thuc Vu about this, and he told us that feedback they’ve gotten from users showed that people are, indeed, concerned about privacy, especially older adults. “We spent a lot of time thinking about how to design the robot to make sure that there were extra layers of assurance,” he says. “One is that the local user can switch between do not disturb mode, or accepting calls with approval. These different modes give the local user more control over how they want to be connected. The second thing is that we announce the people who call in very loudly. We make sure that people are aware that someone is on the other end, driving the robot.”
Another privacy feature they came up with is that, when the robot is parked and not in use, it faces the wall. “there’s no camera looking out, and our users don’t have to worry that someone is spying on them through the camera,” says Vu. He added that people’s privacy concerns seem to decrease as they get more comfortable with the robot. “They get used to the fact that people will visit them. And on the other end, people get to know what times they can call in, too. It becomes less of a worry that family will pop in at random times,” he says.
Is Ohmni Right for You?
Ohmni was initially funded through Indiegogo, and robots pre-ordered that way are in the process of shipping. If you place an order now, the pricing is US $1,499, and we’re told that you can expect your robot to ship in January. There are no subscription fees. This compares favorably to other mobile telepresence robots like Double ($2,500 for the basic robot with no dock or iPad) and Beam ($2,140).
At this point, though, we feel like Ohmni does have a little bit of maturing to do on the software side, as Gerry’s family members explain:
“I think that when this works it works very well at what it says it’s going to do, but there were a couple times where it simply didn’t turn on and there wasn’t anything we could do remotely to fix it. If technically fluent grandkids can’t come and fix it, it has to be really stable.” —EHF
“Abner worked flawlessly probably 75 percent of the time. Ten percent of the time, I couldn’t connect to the robot, and as far as I could tell, there was nothing remotely that could be done—you had to reset the robot locally. I tried the remote reset, but I don’t think there was ever a time when I couldn’t connect to Abner and the remote reset fixed it. Another 15 percent of the time there were glitches that included low frame rate video, or illegible sound, things like that, that made it less functional than a phone call. I would be able to initiate contact with Abner, but the quality was sufficiently poor that I had to use the phone instead. This wouldn’t happen halfway through a call— once Abner was working, everything would be okay.” —EJF
It’s also unclear how often Ohmni will require more substantial maintenance, like updating the Ohmni software that runs on the tablet, or updating the tablet operating system itself. Stuff like this is easy for most users with even a passing familiarity with tech, but again, the whole point of the Ohmni is that the people with direct access to the robot shouldn’t need that familiarity. I don’t know if there’s an elegant solution for this, but it’s something to be aware of—every once in awhile, you’ll need get someone to poke around a bit and make sure everything on the robot is running as it should.
Since these aren’t major issues, we’re optimistic that OhmniLabs will tighten things up over time, especially as they ship more robots and get more real-world feedback. In fact, the company is already considering some additional features and hardware upgrades. A frequent request they get from users is the ability to play a video or display a photo on the robot’s screen, so that it’s easier to share media while using the robot. Other requests include making the height of the robot adjustable and the ability to zoom in and out with the camera. And of course, they also get a lot of requests for an arm.
The upshot is that when Ohmni was working well, most of our testers seemed to agree that it was certainly worth using. The robot might have been even more useful to interact with people with a bit more mobility and independence than Gerry has; we probably didn’t take as much advantage of Ohmni’s mobility as we could have.
A telepresence robot, even a (relatively) inexpensive one like Ohmni, is still a substantial investment. While it doesn’t take the place of an in-person visit, our experience shows how it can make communicating remotely much better, for the people on both sides. The value of Ohmni increases the farther you are from the person you’re talking to, as well—Abner was great for us, but as some of OhmniLabs’ beta testers point out, it’s even more valuable for family across the country, or the globe. Software reliability is a bit of a concern at this point, but it’s manageable, and we think that it’s something OhmniLabs ought to be able to address in the near future. When they do, we’ll have no trouble recommending Ohmni as a useful and effective telepresence platform, and a way of staying connected with your family that’s way, way better than calling them on the phone.
“Abner is incredibly more personal and intimate than a phone call. I think it’s the combination of it rolling up and appearing to join the conversation, along with the video. The best thing about Abner is that Gerry loves it—when it’s working, he’d get a big smile on his face and say, ‘Here comes Abner!’ ” —EJF
[ OhmniLabs ]
Thanks to OhmniLabs for lending us a review unit, and extra special thanks to my partner’s family for giving Ohmni a try, particularly Gerry and EJF, and Charlie too!
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.