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Bell Labs developing Nethead, a cheaper teleconferencing robot

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Bell Labs' Nethead telepresence robot is a lower-cost teleconferencing solution

iRobot Ava at Google I/O 2011
iRobot Ava at Google I/O 2011

Telepresence robots like iRobot's Ava (pictured above) can be a great way for bedridden students to virtually attend school or for home workers to participate in office meetings, but cost and availability often stand in the way. Bell Labs is working on a lower-cost teleconferencing solution called "Nethead" that has a camera and screen sitting on its shoulders, allowing it to swivel in the direction of other meeting attendees. While the robot isn't a full-on avatar like Teselar V nor can read facial expressions, it does allow remote users to pick up subtleties that are currently missed in videoconferences. For example, when two people in a group begin speaking simultaneously, a person generally takes his or her cue to continue by looking around the room and checking to see where most of the attendees are facing. If one of these speakers is using Nethead, he or she can simply turn the robot's head to replicate this action.

Although Nethead is currently only a research project, Bell Labs says the robot could be commercialized in two years and sold at a cost likely in the "hundreds," not the "tens of thousands" often required for telepresence setups.