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Authors: Jun-Ming Lu, Chia-Hung Lu, Yen-Wei Chen, Ju-An Wang and Yeh-Liang Hsu (2011-05-18); recommended: Yeh-Liang Hsu (2011-05-19).
Note: This paper is presented in the “1st Asia Pacific eCare and TeleCare Congress,” June 16-19, 2011, Hong Kong, China.

TRiCmini - A Telepresence Robot towards Enriched Quality of Life of the Elderly


Good communication between the elderly people and their caregivers, family and friends is essential for quality health care. Many elderly people who live alone are suffering from lack of good communication, which leads to feelings of isolation. Technologies are thus developed to meet the challenges. Although telephones and video conferencing systems have brought the distance barrier down to the lowest, they still cannot provide the sense of being together in the same space. Therefore, TRiCmini, a telepresence robot for interpersonal communication, was developed to provide a higher level of communication to the elderly people by duplicating the three-dimensional face-to-face interaction among humans.

TRiCmini consists of the communication module, the movement module, the emotion module, the audio/video module and the power module. Each of the five modules cooperates with one another to provide enhanced interactions between the remote and local users. The remote user relies on the user interface software on a laptop/desktop computer to control TRiCmini to freely move around and communicate with the local user, who are elderly people staying with the robot in the home environment. With the wireless LAN router located in the home environment, TRiCmini is thus connected to the Internet for data transmission. In this way, the face-to-face interaction between the elderly and their family can be rebuilt, even though they are actually not together with each other. Besides, TRiCmini is in a compact size and is easy to operate, just like a home appliance. Moreover, the human-like appearance and emotions make TRiCmini more attractive for everyday use.

In summary, TRiCmini demonstrates the extensive ability for multimedia interaction, facial expressions, whole-body emotions, omnidirectional movement, obstacle avoidance and automatic navigation. With these features, the distance barrier can be overcome by means of improved human-robot-human interaction to maintain satisfactory interpersonal communication between the elderly and the beloved family.

Keywords: telepresence robot, communication, interaction.

1.    Introduction

With the trends in population aging and declining birth rate, there is a growing demand for health care services that contribute to the well-being of the elderly. In the mean time, they also bring some serious problems such as the shortage of nursing professionals and the higher charges of services. Hence, it becomes critical to develop viable alternatives for these new challenges. Over the past decade, service robots have been thus adopted more widely to care for the elderly. Some are used as assistive devices to improve the mobility of the elderly people [Pineau and Atrash, 2007], while others provide aids for the daily living activities as the servants [Kwon et al., 2007; Takahashi et al., 2010]. Nevertheless, the use of service robots in homecare is still in the research stage.

As people live longer and longer, they tend to have higher expectation for the quality of life as well. Generally, the quality of life covers physical, psychological, level of independence, social relationships, environment and spirituality domains [WHOQOL Group, 1994]. Therefore, in addition to the mobility and activity aids that meet the demands of physical abilities and independence, the elderly people actually desire more for a beloved community that contributes to better mental health. Interpersonal communication is among the most frequent approaches for maintaining social relationship. If the elderly people are living with communication difficulties, it may lead to emotional and psychological problems [Gravell, 1988], which will make them become isolated, dependent and withdraw [Lubinski, 1981].

While people are talking face to face, facial expressions and body motions help to convey richer emotions and feelings for better interaction and communication. With the advancement of Internet technologies, it is now possible to combine voice and video information to rebuild the face-to-face interaction between the two ends that are long distance apart. Based on this concept, telepresence robots have been adopted to serve as the agent of remote users. Users can control the robot via wireless connection to feel like being present in the place where it is located [Gerrard et al., 2010]. For the participant who stays with the telepresence robot, the whole body movement of the robot can further create more engaging and enjoyable interaction [Adalgeirsson and Breazeal, 2010]. Moreover, the appearance of the robot also contributes to the success of human-robot-human interaction. In fact, telepresence robots do not always have to be of high level of anthropomorphism, which may sometimes lead to falling into the “uncanny valley” [Mori, 1970]. Instead, animal-like robots have been increasingly used to enhance the therapy experience for the elderly [Wada et al., 2008; Murano, 2010]. The key is to improve the physical interaction by providing life-like behaviors, so that the user would not feel like facing a cold machine.

Considering the current trends and demands of robots for the aging society, the objective of this study is to develop a telepresence robot that enriches the quality of life of the elderly by enhancing the interpersonal communication and human-robot-human interaction in the home environment. In addition to the basic requirements of multimedia communication, the telepresence robot needs to exhibit good mobility to move around and reach the elderly people. Moreover, facial expressions and whole-body motions are expected to improve the presentation of the remote user’s feelings.

2.    Exploring the Users’ Needs

Prior to commencing the design process of the telepresence robot, it is necessary to explore the real needs of the users. By describing the user scenario, it would be easier to identify the associated needs and then figure out the design requirements.

(1)  User scenario

Figure 1. User scenario of the telepresence robot

As shown in Figure 1, there are two kinds of users in the use of the telepresence robot, i.e. remote users and local users. The remote user controls the telepresence robot to move around and communicate with the local user, who stays with the robot in the home environment. Generally, the remote user initiates the operation by using a desktop/laptop computer. As the remote user launches the user interface software, he/she has to select which local user to connect to. Here, the friend list may contain the elderly parents and some other relatives, who can be differentiated by specified usernames, photos, and IP addresses. After logging in to the desired robot, it will be ready for the remote user to interact with the local user. In the mean time, the robot will give an auditory or visual signal to inform the local user that someone from far way has just logged in.

After logging into the robot, the remote user can see through the robot’s eyes to observe the surrounding environment and the local user’s activities. If the local user is not within the visible range, the remote user is able to move the robot along any desired direction to reach the local user. Since the space may be too crowded for the robot to move freely and safely, the robot should be equipped with sensors to detect obstacles. Integrated with an optimization algorithm, collisions can be avoided. In case that the local user may not notice the presence of the robot, the remote user can use the microphone to make sounds out the speaker, as if saying “Hello!” to the local user. Once the local user turns to the robot and responds, the remote user will instantly receive this information by means of video and voice transmission and display. At this moment, the interpersonal communication through the use of the telepresence robot starts at both ends.

During the interpersonal communication process, the telepresence robot serves as an alternative “mobile” video-conferencing system for the remote user. By seeing the real-time video of the local user as well as listening to what he/she is saying, it feels like the local user is right in front. Video information of the remote user is not provided for the local user, since this may create the sense of distance similar to that of video conferencing systems. Instead, a physical agent that looks like a real human and provides 3D face-to-face interaction may be more useful. Further, the volume of the speaker should be adjustable so that the local elderly user can hear clearly even with impaired hearing. In order to compensate for the insufficient information delivered to the local user, the remote user can utilize facial expressions and body motions of the robot to show richer feelings and emotions to the local user. This is enabled by raising the level of anthropomorphism of the robot with more lifelike appearance, body segments, and robotic mechanism. The enriched human-robot-human interaction will therefore let the local user feel more engaged and involved, while the remote user’s projection is greatly enhanced as well.

The local user may not stand or sit still for long when communicating with the telepresence robot. As the local user walks around in the home environment, the sensors and the associated algorithms will enable the telepresence robot to follow him/her to keep the conversation. If there are any barriers to the movement of the robot, the sensors and the associated algorithms also help to avoid collisions. Or, the local user may just take it up easily and help it pass through. Once the telepresence robot is out of electricity, all the local user has to do is to plug it to the nearest electrical socket for charging, just like charging an ordinary home appliance.

In summary, as Figure 1 illustrates, the activities of the local user are presented on the display of the user interface, while the behaviors of the remote user are projected onto the telepresence robot. This model of communication helps to rebuild the physical face-to-face interaction between the children/grandchildren and their elderly parents/grandparents, even though they are actually not together with one another. Besides, with the compact size and light weight, the telepresence will be similar to other ordinary home appliances. The local user can put it in anyplace as wish. Moreover, the local user is also allowed to create customized clothes for the robot to make it friendlier. Combing all the features, the local user will regard the robot as the agent of the remote user and love to share their lives with it

(2)  Associated needs and design requirements

According to the above user scenario, the users’ expectations for the telepresence robot include the real-time transmission of voice and video information, the ability to move freely in all directions, a higher level of anthropomorphism, the compact size and light weight, the presentation of expressions and emotions, and a user-friendly and intuitive interface for robot control. Considering these needs, the design requirements and associated enabling technologies are summarized in Table 1.

Table 1. Design requirements and enabling technologies of the telepresence robot

Design requirements

Enabling technologies

3.    The Development of the Telepresence Robot

Following the design requirements proposed in the previous section, the associated enabling technologies can be adopted to realize the scenario. Inspired by this concept, Tsai et al. [2007] have developed TRIC (Telepresence Robot for Interpersonal Communication) for the elderly people’s use in the home environment. Although TRIC succeeded to help increase the user’s capability of self projection by means of teleoperation, there are still drawbacks requiring improvements. First, the appearance of TRIC is more like an unattractive traditional robot, which may affect the local user’s willingness to interact with it. Besides, even though human factors considerations are taken in the interface design, it is not friendly and intuitive enough for general use. Further, TRIC is 75 cm tall and weighs 8.7 kg, which is not convenient for the elderly users to carry around. As a result, the focus of this study is to eliminate these drawbacks and provide a better telepresence robot for the daily use in the home environment.

The main point of improvement is to enhance the attractiveness to the local user. One is to make TRIC smaller and more light-weighted for better convenience. In addition, towards a higher level of anthropomorphism, the idea is to build a cute and baby-like appearance for TRIC. As a result, the newly developed TRIC is named TRiCmini. The lower-cased “i” indicates the enhanced interaction, while the term “mini” refers to the compact size and flexibility in operation. To achieve these goals, the enabling technologies were reevaluated more precisely for further development.

The system infrastructure of TRiCmini, including both local and remote users, is illustrated in Figure 2. On the one hand, the communication interface of the local user is TRiCmini itself, which contains five modules that cooperate with one another. With the wireless LAN router located in the home environment, TRiCmini is thus connected to the Internet for data transmission. On the other hand, the remote user relies on the user interface software on a laptop/desktop computer to communicate with the local user. The connection of the remote environment can be made via either wired or wireless network. In the following context, the technical details of the five modules of TRiCmini, as well as the user interface for local/remote users, will be explained.

Figure 2. System infrastructure of TRiCmini

(1)     Communication module

This module is the core of TRiCmini. In order to obtain a compact size and light weight, a mobile data server which consists of a PIC server mounted on a peripheral application board was developed. Besides, the PIC server is integrated with a wireless LAN card for data transmission. In general use, commands transmitted from the remote user can be received via the wireless LAN adapter in the home environment. After being delivered to and decoded by the PIC server, the information can be sent to the emotion module or the movement module for subsequent operations.

(2)     Movement module

There are one PIC controller, three sets of motors and omnidirectional wheels, and three ultrasonic sensors in this module. Once a command is received from the communication module, the PIC controller will run the algorithm to determine how the motors will trigger the omnidirectional wheels. In this way, TRiCmini can freely move forwards/backwards or left/right with the velocity of about 12 cm/s, as well as turning clockwise/counterclockwise. For obstacle avoidance and automatic navigation, the ultrasonic sensors will help to detect the objects in the surrounding environment. After the execution of algorithms on the PIC controller, motors will work in varied ways for different purposes.

(3)     Emotion module

For more engaged user experiences, TRiCmini is given the ability to present facial expressions and whole-body emotions. LED array lights are used to allow the remote user to switch TRiCmini’s facial expression among “disgust,” “sadness,” “happiness,” “fear,” “anger,” and “surprise.” In addition, the servo motors help to create TRiCmini’s arm motions. By combining these two features and some special patterns of movements, TRiCmini will be able to produce multiple whole-body emotions. As the remote user chooses either of the whole-body emotions, the command will be transmitted to the communication module via wireless network. Then, the movement module is triggered for the associated pattern of movements, while the emotion module enables the presentation of specific facial expression and arm motions.

(4)     Audio/video module

This module enables two-way audio and one-way video communication. For a more stable Internet connection and higher performance of data processing, an IP camera assigned with its own IP address is used. The IP camera can be moved around different angles by the remote user, both vertically and horizontally, to trace the local user. Integrated with an embedded microphone and an additional speaker, the local user thus has access to audio input/output with TRiCmini. Besides, the remote user relies on the video output and audio input/output of the laptop/desktop computer.

(5)     Power module

This module includes a 12V LiFePO4 battery and a power management circuit board. If the battery is about to run out, a LED light on the power management circuit board will flash. Then, as the local user plugs into the electric socket for charging, the light keeps shining. Once battery is fully charged, the light goes off.

(6)     User interface for local users

The appearance of TRiCmini is exactly the user interface for local users. For a higher level of anthropomorphism, its inner structure consists of the head (integrated with the LED array lights for facial expressions and the IP camera for real-time monitoring), body (containing the five modules), two arms (integrated with servo motors for arm motions), and the feet (equipped with omnidirectional wheels for movements). Besides, as Figure 3 presents, TRiCmini is provided with several pieces of baby coat to make it more human-like. Further, considering the convenience of use and the friendliness, TRiCmini is in a compact size of 43 cm tall and weighing 3.5 kg.

Figure 3. The conceptual sketch, inner structure, and two sets of TRiCmini (left to right)

(7)     User interface for remote users

As illustrated in Figure 4, the user interface for remote users enables the user-friendly and intuitive manipulation of the position of the camera, the omnidirectional movements, obstacle avoidance, automatic navigation, facial expressions and whole-body emotions. Towards a universal design for all users, graphic symbols are used for better recognition. Besides, consistency and usability of the user interface are emphasized. Moreover, the content layout follows user experiences and expectations.

Figure 4. The user interface for remote users

For the possibilities of mass production, the standard manufacturing process was developed for the five modules of TRiCmini. All the components are ready-to-assemble ones and thus can be easily found and purchased in the stores. In this way, the robot will be no more an extremely complicated machine that can be only available in laboratories. Besides, the production cost of a lab prototype of TRiCmini can be kept under an acceptable level of about 1,000 US dollars.

4.    Conclusion

In summary, TRiCmini demonstrates the extensive ability to perform multimedia interaction, facial expressions, whole-body emotions, omnidirectional movement, obstacle avoidance and automatic navigation. With these features, the distance barrier can be overcome by means of improved interaction to maintain satisfactory interpersonal communication between the elderly people and their beloved family. A wider range of quality of life, both physically and psychologically, can be thus achieved. Furthermore, TRiCmini can serve as a tool for home telehealth, so that doctors or the nursing staff will be able to provide timely consultation and services. After all, a stronger community will be built around the elderly people and contributes to healthier and safer lives with ease and comfort.


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