We know that the aging baby boomer population will have a big impact on health care staff. One of the best solutions is to allow doctors to telecommute to hospitals around the globe. And, as sci-fi as it may sound today, what better way to telecommute than in a robotic avatar?
The RP-VITA is a collaboration between iRobot–makers of everything from friendly Roombas to deadly combat robots–and InTouch Health, telemedicine specialists. It’s ostensibly a monitor on wheels that rolls around hospitals not so differently from the Jetson’s Rosie, allowing a doctor to have a physical presence to see patients face-to-face.
But even in the world of high-tech robots and cross-country diagnostic medicine, iRobot’s core involvement with the project was as simple as it could get: to make robots work for everyday humans rather than engineers. And ultimately, some of the same technologies that power Roombas.
“Perhaps the greatest thing about Roomba is that it’s easy to use and works. The same can be said for RP-VITA,” writes iRobot SVP Glen Weinstein. “While it is used in a very different setting to achieve a very different objective, some of the chief design goals around the robot were the same–to make it easy to use, effective in navigating its environment and doing its job well.”
Specifically, while InTouch has been making telemedicine robots for a while now, they had a big limitation: They were operated by a joystick, meaning a doctor needed to steer a complicated piece of machinery through a hospital, using a PC console. When they reached the room–again, navigating the robot around IV drips and diagnostic machines near a bedside–the robot pilot had to shift gears and focus on being a doctor.
iRobot recently invested a few million dollars in InTouch, and along with that investment came some technology that iRobot was very good at: pathfinding. So the RP-VITA is loaded with Roomba-like collision detection and area mapping–simplifying complicated joystick maneuvers to very basic steering–and doctors can now use iPads rather than clunkier PCs to drive the robot and connect to patients via integrated webcam.
“The enhanced navigation is important because it allows RP-VITA to take on more of the driving and navigation tasks so the clinician is free to focus on patient care,” writes Weinstein, who adds that this is far from the end UI for the RP-VITA. This fall, pending FDA approval, iRobot’s pathfinding technology will allow doctors to move from room to room by simply tapping their destination on the iPad’s screen. That’s the sort of end-game UI that could actually make robotic doctors practical–even if there are a lot of design problems left for us, as patients, to feel as comfortable with virtual doctor robots as we do flesh-and-bone humans.