Ed Gomes (Senior Associate Dean, Trinity Technology Services) and I visited Casey Emerson, Director of Education Technology for the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy to check out their Double Robotics mobile video conferencing unit. We’ve been evaluating the Vgo mobile video conferencing unit and were interested in this unit primarily because it was 1/2 the cost and seemed to offer better mobility given it’s use of a Segway like design. Like the Vgo, it is a proprietary point to point solution, but is based on an iPad and can broadcast back to any other iOS device (iPhone and iPad). We were hopeful that given its use of the iPad, we’d be able to run something like Cisco Jabber Video for TelePresence to connect the unit via our video conferencing infrastructure, but unfortunately, the robotic control is linked to their proprietary conferencing software. There is an API and we may follow up with the company to see if they plan on supporting other video conferencing equipment.
Casey indicated that since their school had three campuses, Chapel Hill, Asheville and Elizabeth City, video conferencing is used 10-12 hours per day, every day to connect their classrooms. The Double has been purchased to provide faculty a way to better interact with classrooms in Chapel Hill when they are teaching off campus. It is still in test mode, but reaction has been good and they are considering purchasing a second unit as well as the recently announced charging docking station for $300.
You control the unit via a free iOS App. It finds the nearest unit, you log in and you are controlling it. The interface on the iPhone was good, but limited due to the space. It was easy (relatively easy) to drive as compared to the Vgo. This was mostly due to the Segway style mobility vs the Vgo which is more of a tripod wheel. The two wheel design did have some issues. If you didn’t hit a door threshold with both wheels simultaneously, the unit would tilt and bang the door frame. Another issue is it moving across an unsteady floor as shown in this video:
That said, there was an interesting issue with the Vgo during their testing. The Vgo has “cliff detection” which prevents the unit from falling down stairs. The issue was as you can see from the floor below, the Vgo thought the stripes were actually “cliffs” and would not pass. In fact, the dark tile at the door of the classroom required putting down white paper so the unit would drive in.
As you can see below, the interface from the iPad give you more room to interact. I drove the unit down a hall and into a classroom to get the sense of what it would look like for a faculty member at the head of the class. I thought it would be interesting to test using this unit mirrored to an Apple TV as classroom broadcast might be more challenging to hear.
One of the feature enhancements Casey requested was the ability to simply rotate the iPad on the unit rather than use the wheels to go back and forth. The unit can “park” by extending a kickstand like device. This saves energy as the unit doesn’t have to roll back and forth to maintain balance. Once you are locked however, you can’t turn the unit to scan side to side.
One cool feature is the ability to rise from a sitting to a standing position. When driving, you want to be sure you are in the lower position to lower the center of gravity is low otherwise it is more likely to tip. They’ve “face planted” the unit a few times but the housing protected the iPad.
The unit did run into a “dead zone” of WiFi access. You lose video first, then audio. Your mobility is the last thing to go, but driving “blind” seems a bit dangerous. Any unit, unless it had 4G would suffer the same issues (the Vgo was no different during our testing). You also cannot drive into elevators as there is no wifi (and it can’t yet push buttons). Casey had spoken with the building to see if there was a way to interface with the elevator controls, but that was not allowed due to safety concerns. In hospitals where there are multiple floor robots, they tend to use non-patient elevators such as freight elevators.
Bottom line for less money, the Double Robotics seems like a good solution for single floor point to point video conferencing.