Toyota Research Developing New Telepresence Robot for 2020 Olympics

Toyota's T-TR1 offers a way for people to attend the Olympics without leaving home

2 min read
Toyota Research Developing New Telepresence Robot for 2020 Olympics
Developed by the Toyota Research Institute, the T-TR1 telepresence robot features a massive screen, multiple 3D-sensing systems, plus a 360-degree camera.
Image: Toyota Research Institute

With the Olympics taking place next year in Japan, Toyota is (among other things) stepping up its robotics game to help provide “mobility for all.” We know that Toyota’s HSR will be doing work there, along with a few other mobile systems, but the Toyota Research Institute (TRI) has just announced a new telepresence robot called the T-TR1, featuring an absolutely massive screen designed to give you a near-lifesize virtual presence.

  • T-TR1 is a virtual mobility/tele-presence robot developed by Toyota Research Institute in the United States. It is equipped with a camera atop a large, near-lifesize display.
  • By projecting an image of a user from a remote location, the robot will help that person feel more physically present at the robot’s location.
  • With T-TR1, Toyota will give people that are physically unable to attend the events such as the Games a chance to virtually attend, with an on-screen presence capable of conversation between the two locations.

TRI isn’t ready to share much more detail on this system yet (we asked, of course), but we can infer some things from the video and the rest of the info that’s out there. For example, that ball on top is a 360-degree camera (that looks a lot like an Insta360 Pro), giving the remote user just as good of an awareness of their surroundings as they would if they were there in person. There are multiple 3D-sensing systems, including at least two depth cameras plus a lidar at the base. It’s not at all clear whether the robot is autonomous or semi-autonomous (using the sensors for automated obstacle avoidance, say), and since the woman on the other end of the robot does not seem to be controlling it at all for the demo, it’s hard to make an educated guess about the level of autonomy, or even how it’s supposed to be controlled. 

We really like that enormous screen—despite the fact that telepresence now requires pants. It adds to the embodiment that makes independent telepresence robots useful.

We really like that enormous screen—despite the fact that telepresence now requires pants. It adds to the embodiment that makes independent telepresence robots useful. It’s also nice that the robot can move fast enough to keep up a person walking briskly. Hopefully, it’s safe for it to move at that speed in an environment more realistic than a carpeted, half-empty conference room, although it’ll probably have to leverage all of those sensors to do so. The other challenge for the T-TR1 will be bandwidth—even assuming that all of the sensor data processing and stuff is done on-robot, 360 cameras are huge bandwidth hogs, plus there’s the primary (presumably high quality) feed from the main camera, and then the video of the user coming the other way. It’s a lot of data in a very latency-sensitive application, and it’ll presumably be operating in places where connectivity is going to be a challenge due to crowds. This has always been a problem for telepresence robots—no matter how amazing your robot is, the experience will often for better or worse be defined by Internet connections that you may have no control over.

We should emphasize that Toyota has only released the bare minimum of information about the T-TR1, although we’re told that we can expect more as the 2020 Olympics approach: opening ceremonies are one year from today.

[ TRI ]

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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