For a long time, mind-controlled prostheses have provided a smidget of hope for people with disabilities that they may one day regain a measure of independence. Even though there have been many examples of such prostheses throughout the years, the majority of them require brain surgery and are yet be commercialized. While scientists continue to fiddle with neural circuits, Aubot, a startup based in Melbourne, has leaped past all these problems to unveil the Teleport-the first commercial, thought-controlled telepresence robot.
Teleport utilizes a basic underlying concept: to enable people to be in two places at the same time-just like with other telepresence appliances. Although there are many industrial and corporate settings where it can be used (currently the largest customers are museums and corporates), institutions that take care of the elderly and the health sectors are some of the areas where it has been applied with good effect.
Despite the fact that there have been research studies on mind-controlled telepresence robots in the past, Teleport is fascinating due to its simplicity. It does not involve complicated training programs, brain surgery or lots of insurance legalese. The only thing users require is a standard, commercially-available brain control interface costing under $100 known as the MindWave, and they can have Teleport working within five minutes. Anthony Bartl, who is 36 years old and a quadriplegic, tested the robot using the brain-control device and described the whole experience as being quite thrilling.
Bartl, who became paralyzed from the neck downwards after getting hit by a truck when just six years old, explains that with the device, he can visit an American museum or look at bears in the Arctic. He adds that the experience was unbelievable since he had never gotten anything to move using his brain before.
In order to use MindWave and move the robot, the user only needs to raise their concentration levels above a certain threshold. The movement of the robot will then be controlled through concentration and eye blinking. Marita Cheng, founder of Aubot, explains that if one is in 'left' mode and has attained the 70 % thinking threshold for a long time, the robot will spin continually. A number of blinks will stop the robot whereas double blinks will make it change direction. As seen in the attached video, Bartl uses a stick placed in his mouth to help stop the robot through pressing the space bar in the event blinking does not work.
To assist people like Bart and take the robot to the next level, the company is in the process of integrating the device with a robotic arm. This would certainly result in a massive improvement in the disabled person’s quality of life.
According to Cheng, disabled people can use it to go ahead and perform so many more tasks such as getting items from the fridge, opening doors or even feeding themselves. Cheng has previously built robotic arms and developed technological solutions to assist the disabled. Her very first product was a prosthesis known as Jeva. Apart from being the recipient of a Young Australian of the Year award, she also co-founded Aipoly- an image recognition application that assists visually impaired people to identify their surroundings.
Teleport provides a window to the outside world for patients who are hospitalized. At the moment, the company is working with CanTeen, an Australian body that supports people with cancer, to empower hospitalized cancer-stricken children to attend school. Previously, they would only get after-school visits from their colleagues-but now they can remotely follow events in the classroom.Cheng says they can envisage a buddy system that pairs each Teleport with several students from school, who then ensure that the Teleport (that is controlled by their hospitalized friend) is working properly and can get to where it needs to go.
At a time when it is rare to see extended families, the Teleport allows people based in different geographic areas to remain involved in one another’s lives. A Skype session or phone call depends on the other party picking up, and only provides a fixed background view.Since the robot is remotely controlled, families can position it in the home of their grandparents or have it follow them around as they hold a conversation.
The robot comes with a touchscreen tablet that is fitted on a retractable pole which can be adjusted to heights ranging from 1.1 to1.7 meters. There are Ultrasonic sensors installed on its base to avert collisions and a wide angle lens provides a larger field of view. Users can control it using an android phone or a computer’s web browser and it can be packed in a car’s backseat.
Besides working on the attachment of the robotic arm, the company is trying to increase the robot’s collection of add-ons in order to enhance its functionality. Cheng explains they are designing different editions of the robot where one can remove parts of it, for example the tablet, and replace it with a navigational or virtual reality head. This means you only need to buy a new robotic head if you desire to have more functionality.
Currently the Teleport is going for AUD$3, 800, and it can only be bought in Australia. The MindWave is bought separately, but it is only needed for people who are not able to use their hands. However, the company is set to open an office in California in the later part of this year to manage sales in North America.