Long-distance relationships have always been sustained by technology, first with international calls, then with video apps like Skype. That was how Tan Tingxi kept in touch with his parents ever since he moved to Canada in 1999, when he enrolled at the University of Western Ontario as an undergraduate in Applied Mathematics.
While grateful that they could still keep in touch, the Singaporean couldn’t shake off the feeling of not quite being “there” with his loved ones. So after setting up robotics development company OhmniLabs in Silicon Valley with two partners in 2015, he created the Ohmni Robot.
The bot is remotely operated and moves around the house so you feel present during a video call. It even has a tilting neck that allows the user to see different perspectives.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has caused people to take a different view of robotics,” says Tan, 37. “What used to be a novelty, like robotic telepresence, is now essential technology.”
The Ohmni Robot’s myriad uses include letting quarantined patients chat with family members, and allowing doctors to consult remotely with patients.
For Tan, however, the stories that “really tug at [his] heartstrings” involve kids. OhmniLabs robots are deployed in the US at several Child Life Zones in hospitals, which are spaces that provide enrichment and entertainment to younger patients. And through a partnership with Australian not-for-profit organisation MissingSchool, homebound students can attend virtual classes through Ohmni Robot.
Tan also prides himself on the fact that the Ohmni Robot can even save lives. When one Ohmni user couldn’t get in touch with his mother, he got the robot to check on her. He found her passed out in the house and immediately contacted emergency services.
Although there are privacy concerns with such a technology — some worry the robot can be used as a surveillance device — Tan insists the built-in measures help prevent this, like its pre-call announcements and a screen that faces the wall while in the charging dock.
He’s even convinced his parents to have one in their home, “though we all know they don’t have a choice,” Tan adds with a laugh.
Eventually, he hopes to develop the robot to react more intuitively to its surroundings. So if the bot detects a senior user falling down, it will automatically call for an ambulance.
“Humans are social creatures and any good technology needs to consider that,” says Tan. “In the post-pandemic world, as more activities are carried out online, there will be new technologies to better enable them.”
This story first appeared in the June/July 2020 issue of A Magazine.