History of Telepresence Robots

Although telepresence robots have not yet found their way into many educational institutions, this technology is not new. In this article, we highlight milestones in the history of telepresence robots. The input could also inspire a history lesson around telepresence

From the beginning of the 20th Century, robots were well-known as a part of Science Fiction. It was only after 1917 when Joseph Capek composed the brief tale Opilec portraying automats and 1921 when his sibling Karel Capek composed the play Rossum’s General Robots (RUR) when the idea of advanced mechanics became popular to the common public.. The idea of distant mechanical activity has for quite some time been perceived to have benefits in a few distinct fields [1].

The term ‘Telepresence’ was first used by Marvin Minsky in a 1980 article. He framed his vision for an adjusted adaptation of the more matured idea of teleoperation that focused on making a remote user feel like they are truly present somewhere else  [7].

Telepresence robotics in the innovation field has been around for quite a while with numerous applications in various businesses. Telepresence robotics is still going under numerous new developments. A recent report shows the worldwide teleoperation and telepresence robotics market will reach $98.3 billion by 2027, which shows its emerging role in the era of the fourth industrial revolution [2].

Telepresence robots can be portrayed as a mix of three unique areas of innovation, which are robotics, telepresence and teleoperation. Robotics is a field of technology which uses machines operated (or programmed) by humans to perform tasks. Telepresence involves the feeling of being present even though the audience and the speaker are separated by distance. Teleoperation is the activity of controlling a machine or framework from a distance. Thus, the meaning of telepresence robots becomes obvious, which is the control of robots or semi-independent robots from far distances using tethered connections or wireless networks [5] [9].

Raymond C. Goertz made the first telepresence robot in 1958. He created systems to handle radioactive materials safely but they were only electrical systems controlled by on-off switches for axes movements. The systems were slow and inefficient to operate. This lead to the use to mechanically linked master-slave components which enabled users to use manipulators via motion or gesture control from a distance. In this way, by using electrically coupled manipulators Goertz laid the foundation for telerobotics. In the 1960’s the concept of supervisory control was introduced to cope up with the effects of time delay in teleoperation  [11].

Niemeyer, G., Preusche, C., Stramigioli, S. and Lee, D., 2016. Telerobotics. In Springer handbook of robotics (pp. 1085-1108). Springer, Cham.

The table below shows few telepresence operations over the 19th to the 21st Century [5] [9].

Year Invention
1898 Nikola Tesla invented the first teleoperated boat
1945 Goertzs Raymond invented the first master-slave teleoperator for a person to handle radioactive materials at work
1954 Goertzs Raymond and his team invented the first electro-mechanical manipulator including feedback servo control
1966 Use of a cable-controlled submersible by the US Navy
1970 First remote-controlled rover to land on the moon (Lonokhod 1)
1986 The term ‘Telepresence’ was coined. NASA Ames introduced ‘virtual interface environment for telerobot control’
1990’s The University of California introduced telegardens, and telerobotics was started to be used in household uses.
2000 till present With enhancements in AI technology, telerobotics is becoming more and more advanced and widespread innovative.

Basically, a telepresence robot helps to place ‘you’ at a distant area in a flash, giving you a virtual presence, or ‘telepresence’. Telepresence robots are controlled i.e. via a PC, a tablet, or a smartphone and consist of a camera, screen, speakers, microphones and receivers. Both end users interacting with the robot can see and hear each other at the same time. For example, a remote teacher teaching via a telepresence robot can see and hear his/her students and similarly the students can also hear and see their teacher via the robot at the same time. Individuals connecting with the robot can see and hear its administrator and the administrator can at the same time see what the robot is ‘looking’ at and ‘hearing’. A few robots require a tablet or telephone to be appended to the robot, while others incorporate underlying video and sound highlights. It can thus be said that a telepresence robot can be utilized to give yourself a ‘broad’ set of versatile ‘eyes’ and ‘ears’, empowering you to have a distant presence at any area with a web association and they can help to save time and money [3] [6].

Recent studies and research has shown that the use of telepresence robots has a remarkable potential among the increasing number of available teleteaching tools today. Telepresence robots can prove to be of great help to students. For example, a student will not miss his/her lectures, activities due to lack of mobility. Even in the times of sickness/illness, bad weather conditions, shifting to a location far from the school/university, any student can easily have access to education. Telepresence robots can promote involvement of remote students with their peers in extra-curricular activities and group studying. It can help to bridge the gap for students with social anxiety and help them to express better. Telepresence robots can promote active student-teachers interactions more than the video-conferencing teleteaching methods. The use of telepresence robots in education in the digital era can help to boost communication and collaboration skills of the 21st century in students and teachers. The hassle and environmental impact of educational routines can also be controlled to a great extent by the use of telepresence robots. Smarter and more adaptable telepresence robots can be made using the 5G and edge technologies [7] [8] [9].


[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4247417

[2] https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/emerging-role-of-teleoperation–telerobotics-in-industry-4-0-2020-2025-analysis-301046095.html

[3] https://telepresencerobots.com/what-telepresence-robot-and-what-can-they-do#:~:text=Simply%20put%2C%20a%20telepresence%20robot,interacting%20with%20the%20robot%20can

[4] https://telepresencerobots.com/telepresence-robots-faq/what-is-a-telepresence-robot/

[5] https://library.educause.edu/resources/2013/12/7-things-you-should-know-about-telepresence-robots

[6] https://telepresencerobots.com/

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telepresence

[8] https://www.techtarget.com/searchenterpriseai/definition/telepresence-robot

[9] IJsselsteijn, W. A. (2005). History of telepresence. 3D Communication: Algorithms, concepts and real-time systems in human centred communication, John Wiley & Sons: Chichester.

[10] Bamoallem, B. S., Wodehouse, A. J., & Mair, G. M. (2014). Design for an optimal social presence experience when using telepresence robots. In DS 77: Proceedings of the DESIGN 2014 13th International Design Conference (pp. 653-662).

[11] Niemeyer, G., Preusche, C., Stramigioli, S. and Lee, D., 2016. Telerobotics. In Springer handbook of robotics (pp. 1085-1108). Springer, Cham.

Photo-Credits (Picture of Raymond C. Goertz): Argonne National LaboratoryArchival Photographic Files, University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center; CC BY-SA 4.0