Connecting people through ‘telepresence’

Telepresence robot in action (credit: the TERESA project)

Connecting people through ‘telepresence’

Technology has transformed the way we communicate. From the early telegrams through to email, social media and smart phones, it has been an area of life that has been constantly evolving. Now, a Catz Fellow is pioneering a new method of interaction in the form of semi-autonomous telepresence robots.

Shimon Whiteson, Associate Professor, Fellow and Tutor in Computer Science is the scientific coordinator for the TERESA project which has developed 'socially intelligent' telepresence robots, which allow people to interact with others without being there physically. In telepresence systems, a human controller remotely interacts with people by guiding a remotely located robot, allowing the controller to be more physically present than with standard teleconferencing. While such robots are already commercially available, Shimon’s team researched the potential of making them semi-autonomous, allowing the operator to focus on having conversation and interacting with others rather than the complexities of navigating the robot. The TERESA robots can automatically maintain a socially appropriate distance from those they interact with and will interpret instructions from the operator, for example ‘visit the coffee machine’, using information and data that it has gathered about its environment by way of machine-learning and pre-set commands.

Shimon can see the potential for these robots to be deployed in a number of real life scenarios. “Telepresence robots have countless applications: helping sick children attend school remotely, helping doctors do rounds in a hospital without having to travel there, enabling speakers to give talks without going to the conference, and more”.

To demonstrate the real-world application of the robots, the team took one of their robots to an elderly day care centre in France. Once deployed, it allowed people who were not well enough to leave their homes to still take part in the normal daily activities of the community.

As well as being the project’s overall scientific coordinator, Shimon leads the University of Oxford’s stake in the project. The other partners include Imperial College London, the Universities of Amsterdam and Twente and Universidad Pablo de Olavide.

Shimon is involved in a number of research projects related to developing new machine learning methods for robotics, information retrieval and multi-camera surveillance systems. Commenting on the next big thing in robotics, Shimon said, “there are a number of recent advances in artificial intelligence that will become commonplace in the near future: self-driving cars, home robotics, health care robotics, intelligent assistants and companions.  The list goes on!”

You can find out more about Shimon’s research on his university page.