How can remote workers make their presence known in their organization? How can enterprises overcome the limitations of video conferencing and enable a level of communication and collaboration that approaches on-site interaction?
Telepresence robots have been on the scene for the better part of a decade, though as global upheavals reshape work and reorient attitudes toward remote participation, the technology may finally be primed to break out of its niche user base and go mainstream. The timing is fortuitous: The market is now mature enough that consumers have choices when it comes to feature set and price point. As companies downsize physical locations and revamp their policies toward distributed workforces, telepresence offers both technological benefits and collaboration advantages that will appeal to some employers and workers alike.
The current telepresence lineup reflects the range of use cases and intended end-users out there, including a handful of models designed for specific fields and workflows, as well as others that fit organizations of any size. They were chosen based on a wide survey of this growing product category and by speaking with company representatives and end-users about their experience.
These are our picks for the best telepresence robots out there right now.
In the battle for low-cost, truly robotic telepresence, OhmniLabs has been giving rival Double a major run for its money.
At under $2699, the Ohmni Robot weighs just 20 pounds and folds up, meaning you can take it anywhere, but still manages all the functionality you need in a telepresence robot. It features wide-angle, low-latency streaming at HD+ resolution and real-time full-resolution zoom to read whiteboards or see fine details at full UHD 4K detail.
A secondary dedicated wide-angle navigation camera lets you see around the base of Ohmni while you’re driving, which you can do remotely from just about any standard device. The unit features a bright 10.1-inch screen and integrated Jabra speakerphone for great audio. It doesn’t have automatic rising and lowering like Double, but the robot can move its head side to side for natural interactions.
OhmniLabs is also thoughtful about who might use the device, which has dual-band Wi-Fi radio with full 2.4GHz + 5GHz support and optimized background scanning and roaming for large spaces. Full 802.1x support means it should be simple to run on business or school networks.
Where the Double 2 used a tablet display, Double 3 replaces the iPad with a fully integrated solution using an Nvidia Jetson TX2 GPU, two Intel RealSense depth sensors, two high-resolution cameras, and a beamforming microphone array. In place of the iPad is an integrated screen and new feature sets, including AR overlays, that really step up the functionality and feature set game of the Double.
Some of those features include a new click-to-drive interface, obstacle avoidance, and pan/tilt/zoom video, all of which contribute to a fully immersive remote experience that’s still intuitive to use. Perhaps the biggest functionality upgrade is the addition of mixed reality overlays.
In Double’s version of mixed reality, virtual 3D objects are added into the video stream to appear as if they’re in the real world. Virtual objects include helpful waypoints to make the video feed more informative during navigation.
The Double 3 with charging dock runs $3,999. If you already have a Double 2, you can upgrade your current device with a Double 3 head for $1,999.
With the Ava Telepresence robot, remote users easily and safely navigate through large workspaces, event spaces, and retail spaces with an enterprise-grade video conferencing system designed to make interacting with people on-site feel natural.
Unlike lower-priced models, the robot features intelligent, autonomous navigation. Remote users simply specify a destination, and Ava automatically moves to the desired location while avoiding obstacles. The technology is slick: The robot utilizes advanced mapping to learn the local environment and create a realistic map of the area, which enables it to navigate at the push of a button. Obstacle avoidance we’re used to seeing on autonomous mobile robots in fields like logistics and fulfillment enables Ava to navigate around people and avoid tumbles down the stairs.
Perhaps Ava’s biggest selling point is its form factor. This is one sleek unit, making it ideal for applications in client-facing offices and sectors like hospitality.
It’s also secure. Embedded enterprise-grade security (including encryption, secure HTTPS management, password protection) means Ava is well suited to a corporate IT infrastructure.
Meeting Owl is a 360-degree video and audio conferencing system that automatically focuses on the people speaking in the room. It doesn’t move, so it’s not a robot by most definitions, but its autonomous functionality makes it an excellent and highly affordable tabletop system for individuals and teams that routinely conference and collaborate remotely.
Eleven-inches tall, Meeting Owl uses an eight microphone array to pick up sound and lock in on the person speaking. Remote viewers on the other end get a panoramic view of all the meeting attendants and a close-up view of the current speaker.
The system comes in original and Pro versions. The Pro version improves on the Meeting Owl’s 720p picture and increases audio pickup range from 12 feet to 18 feet, which is especially useful for larger teams or any collaboration utilizing a whiteboard.
The system integrates with all the major video conferencing services so usability is a snap. The Pro version goes for $999.
Kubi is an inexpensive ($600) robotic docking cradle for tablets that augments the teleconferencing experience you’re used to with the addition of movement.
During video conferencing, the remote participant can steer the cradle to look around a room. “Kubi” means “neck” in Japanese.
That makes it a particularly useful device for team environments where one participant is remote. The remote worker sits at a laptop or desktop but is able to look around the room to engage with speakers, which the device’s developers say enhances the interactive experience.
An enhanced audio kit and a secure docking retrofit to keep tablets secured to the base make them good options for educational environments where learners have to beam into larger classroom settings and engage in conversations but won’t necessarily have to move around the classroom.
Anyone in tech or a tech-adjacent industry will be familiar with the sight of telepresence robots roving around conference room floors as virtual attendants beam in remotely.
Beam is comfortable in offices and is used by some of the biggest companies in the world, but this robot from Suitable Technologies really shines in conference settings, where it’s nimble enough to bounce from keynotes to breakouts to hallway banter.
Beam has four wheels (the pro version has five for increased stability and maneuverability) and wide-angle navigation cameras. The entire ecosystem was built in-house, which means participants must use Beam’s app.
The advantage is security, which is best in class. Using industry-standard technology such as TLS/SSL, AES-256, and HMAC-SHA1, Beam encrypts all communication that travels through our system to ensure your calls remain private and secure.
VGo’s parent, Vecna, knows the healthcare sector, so it makes sense that the company has developed a telepresence robot that enables healthcare providers to deliver lower-cost services and improved quality of care virtually.
Telemedicine is certainly having a moment as providers figure out ways of reducing in-person visits, but the robot has also been used to enable homebound students to go to school virtually.
Using the VGo application on a PC or Mac, an internet-connected person located anywhere connects to a VGo in a distant facility. VGo can be shared by a set of people or dedicated to a single person using standard web accounts and permission settings maintained by the admin.
VGo is lightweight, contributing to its excellent battery life, which is best in class at 12 hours. That makes it ideal for clinical environments and hospitals.
Advocating for telepresence
Offices are coming around to telepresence solutions for remote workers, and the recent health crisis has put the transition to distributed workforces into hyperdrive. Teachers and school administrators are now also embracing remote learning, which, in the short term, can quell infection rates — but, in the longterm, may be a way to maximize limited resources while bringing needed services to students.
Markets and Markets estimated the overall telepresence market will be over $300 million by 2023. However, that market research doesn’t take into account the rapid adoption of remote work due to or the expected long-term effects of the global stay-at-home experiment on attitudes toward remote working. Pivoting out of the pandemic, many companies may embrace a partially distributed workforce, which is a huge opportunity for developers of telepresence and video conferencing systems.
For workers, employers, and IT pros who wish to advocate for telepresence systems, the most important strategy is to tout the collaborative benefits of the technology and to have a plan for implementation. Robots in the workforce carry a longstanding stigma. Coupled with lingering resistance to remote work situations, existing biases on the part of employers or employees could stop the proposed adoption of telepresence dead in its tracks.
But advocating for telepresence as a way of maximizing collaboration and approximating the productive magic that happens in unstructured interactions in hallways and face-to-face chats can help mitigate concerns. As can explaining that most telepresence systems are ready-to-go out of the box with intuitive user interfaces. The technology is carefully designed not to need extensive training to use. After all, most humans don’t need training to have natural interactions in person.
What to look for in evaluating telepresence robots
The biggest questions to ask are who might use a telepresence solution and in what settings. If you’re just looking to enhance video conferencing without spending big bucks or implementing new processes and protocols, solutions like Meeting Owl or Kubi would be the best places to start.
However, for those willing to embrace the dynamic features offered by a mobile robot, consider whether your environment is client-facing. A slick robot like Ava makes a great impression, although it comes at a price.
For most SMBs, models from Double or Ohmni are likely to be smart bets. They’re relatively inexpensive and provide a seamless user interface. A company can get by with one shared robot to start and easily scale up to meet needs.
After all, once one remote employee gets a robot doppelgänger, it’s likely others will want them as well.
Other options to consider
The goal of telepresence is to seamlessly integrate remote workers into physical locations. But, in 2021, with work totally transformed and record numbers of workers staying remote for the foreseeable future, that use case may have less urgency for office workers. (The use case for telepresence designed for medical professionals, however, has never been clearer.)
If all of your colleagues are remote, as well, there’s not much call for a robot that can roam the halls. If you’re stuck at home and suffering from epic levels of Zoom fatigue, I’ve had excellent luck with Facebook Portal, which integrates video conferencing with all the functionality of an Alexa-powered home assistant. It’s not technically a robot, but it does bridge the gap between the standard webcam and the fancier telepresence robots on this list. For the time being, and at least until more workers migrate back to offices, this is a very solution for seamless video conferences from home.
US pipeline ransomware attack serves as fair warning to persistent corporate inertia over security
Organisations that continue to disregard the need to ensure they have adopted basic cybersecurity hygiene practices should be taken to task. This will be critical, especially as cybercriminals turn their attention to sectors where cyber threats can result in real-world risks, as demonstrated in the US Colonial Pipeline attack.
In many of my conversations with cybersecurity experts, there is a shared sense of frustration that businesses still are failing to get some of the most basic things right. Default passwords are left unchanged, frontline staff and employees are still falling for common scams and phishing attacks, and major businesses think nothing of using technology that are decades old.
Just this month, UOB Bank revealed an employee had fallen prey to a China police impersonation scam that compromised the personal data of 1,166 customers, including their mobile number and account balance. This specific impersonation use case had been flagged as a common scam tactic and even featured in a crime prevention TV programme months before. That an employee of a major bank still could have fallen for it is shocking.
It begs the question whether its frontline staff or any employee with access to customer data has been adequately trained as well as regularly updated on how they should deal with potential cyber threats.
Should such inertia continue to fester, there’s real cause for concern ahead especially as cyber attackers turn their attention towards operational technology (OT) sectors, such as power, water, and transport. As it is, businesses seem ill-prepared to cope with the growing threat.
Consider the stats. Some 68% of businesses in Asia-Pacific were breached last year, up from 32% in 2019, and 17% had to deal with more than 50 cyber attacks or errors a week. And they took way too long to pick themselves up after an attack, with an average of 60.83% needing more than a week to remediate the attacks, citing lack of funds and skillsets as their key challenges.
in Singapore, 28% had been breached in the past year, with almost 15% having to deal with at least 50 attempted cyber attacks a week. Some 33% described the resulting data loss as very serious or serious.
Things will only get worse as businesses in the region and around the world rush to adopt tools that facilitate remote work, leaving their networks vulnerable to attacks. As it is, 54.7% viewed enabling and managing remote workforces a top ICT challenge and another 49.7% felt likewise about securing remote workers.
As online adoption grows, supply chains will widen as businesses rush to cope with the spike in transactions. This means attack surfaces, too, will expand and it is crucial that enterprises get the fundamentals right to better mitigate potential security risks.
When cyber risks become physical threats
And in the case of the Colonial Pipeline, the risks can be severe.
The privately-held pipeline operator supplies 45% of the East Coast’s fuel, including gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, home-heating oil, and fuel for the US military. It transports more than 100 million gallons of fuel a day across an area that spans Texas to New York.
The cyber attack forced the company to temporarily shut its operations and freeze IT systems to contain the infection. It triggered supply shortage concerns and pushed gasoline futures to their highest level in three years. It also prompted the US Department of Transportation to invoke emergency powers to make it easier to transport fuel by road.
That it paid up shouldn’t come as a surprise, since a majority of businesses in Asia-Pacific also choose to pay up after falling victim to ransomware attacks. These include 88% in Australia and 78% in Singapore that have forked out the ransom in full or in part.
On its part, Singapore has recognised the risks cybersecurity attacks pose to its critical infrastructures. Early this month, it created a cybersecurity expert panel focused on OT, with the first meeting slated to take place in September. The move comes months after the country last October unveiled a new cybersecurity blueprint that looked to safeguard its core digital infrastructure.
In particular, the government pointed to OT systems, where a successful attack can manifest as a severe disruption in the physical world. Such systems, including those in the energy, water, and transport sectors, are critical for delivering essential services and supporting the economy.
In forming the OT expert panel, Singapore’s Cyber Security Agency Chief Executive David Koh said: “While OT systems were traditionally separated from the internet, increasing digitalisation has led to more IT and OT integration. Hence, it is crucial for OT systems to be better protected from cyber threats to prevent outages of critical services that could result in serious real-world consequences.”
That Singapore has put strong focus on OT is a positive step forward. And it is hoping the expert panel will provide some guidance on a range of issues, including governance policies, OT technologies, supply chain, threat intelligent information sharing, and incident response.
However, with most of the industry still stuck in apparent inertia, firmer action is necessary to ensure businesses across all sectors, including OT, do not slip up.
This should encompass even the simplest and most basic rules, such as outlawing the use of software that is more than 15 years old or mandating that all employees–including senior management–chalk up minimum training hours a year on cybersecurity threat management.
In addition, all organisations that have encountered a security incident should be required to detail how their systems were breached. An abridged version of the attack, excluding specifics that can further compromise the company’s security, also should publicly released.
It should no longer be sufficient for any company to simply say the attack was “sophisticated” without giving any other information to justify that description.
In the Colonial Pipeline case, details have been slow to trickle out, with the US government yet to receive any information from the oil pipeline operator. The Biden administration had expressed frustration over what they perceived to be weak security protocols on Colonial Pipeline’s part as well as well a lack of readiness to deal with cyberattacks.
It is clearly time for all organisations, not just those in Asia, to get a grip. Because if they don’t, they won’t just be losing millions in ransom payments, actual physical lives will be at risk. Transport and healthcare operators, in particular, should take heed.
And with cybercriminals increasingly skilled in their craft, future attacks will indeed be so complex it will put to shame use of the word “sophisticated” that appears in almost every statement companies currently make to describe they breach they suffered.
Be better. Because when it comes to cybersecurity, that is what many businesses have yet to be.
ASD knows who attacked the APH email system but isn’t revealing who
The Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC), and the overseeing Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), know who attacked the email system of the Australian Parliament House, but they are not saying who it is.
“Attribution is a matter for government, and is made only when in the national interest,” it said in response to Senate Estimates Questions on Notice.
Many of the questions were passed off onto the Department of Parliamentary Service (DPS), which revealed earlier this week that it had pulled down and replaced its mobile device management (MDM) system as a result of the attack.
“The attack did not cause an outage of the DPS systems. DPS shut down the MDM system. This action was taken to protect system security while investigation and remediation were undertaken,” DPS said.
“To restore services, DPS brought forward the rollout of an advanced mobile services solution that replaced the legacy MDM. The new solution provides greater security and functionality for mobile devices. This rollout was a complex activity and extended the outage experienced by users.”
The legacy MDM system remains in use in a limited capacity.
One tidbit ASD did part with was agreeing that the attacker was unsophisticated and that the ACSC was involved in “searching for any potential implants” in the APH Exchange server.
An unsophisticated attack would have had a higher than expected chance of succeeding, thanks to the lack of 2FA.
“Before users came back on line after this incident, they were asked to implement new security controls to access APH emails via mobile handsets — namely multi-factor authentication,” Senator Kimberley Kitching said in a question.
“In the course of providing cybersecurity advice and assistance to DPS following the incident, the ACSC provided broad advice on security controls,” the ASD said.
ASD said there was no “specific threat” that led to the introduction of 2FA, and instead pointed to its Essential Eight advice first published in 2017.
DPS said earlier this week it had seen no evidence of any email accounts being compromised due to the attack, and the attack had nothing to do with recent Exchange vulnerabilities.
In another answer, ASD said no code review has been completed on the systems of the Australian Electoral Commission, but it has “conducted a vulnerability assessment and partnered with the AEC to conduct multiple uplift activities on the AEC network.”
Labor pitches ‘startup year’ as key to Australia’s future
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese has outlined his plan for Australia should Labor be successful at the next federal election, one that’s centred on things the Coalition missed in its 2021-22 Budget.
“We have a once in a century opportunity to reinvent our economy, to lift wages and make sure they keep rising, to invest in advanced manufacturing and in skills and training with public TAFE at its heart, to provide affordable childcare, to fix aged care, to address the housing crisis, to champion equality for women, and to emerge as a renewable energy superpower,” he declared in his Budget reply speech, delivered Thursday night.
“That’s the better future I want to build for Australia as Prime Minister.”
A centrepiece of Albanese’s plan is a “startup year”.
“Australia has always produced scientific innovations, but we always haven’t been good at commercialising them,” he continued, listing the black box, Google Maps, the Cochlear implant as some examples.
He said a lot of what Australia uncovers via research gets converted into manufacturing jobs overseas.
“And if we don’t get smart, if we don’t get serious, if we don’t get moving — the same thing is going to happen again,” he said.
The startup year, Albanese declared, is a program to “help drive innovation and increase links between universities and entrepreneurs”.
The program will allow final year university students, or recent graduates, to learn from experts about how to transform their ideas and research into products and services that Australia can sell to the world.
The students would do their training at established “accelerators” or “incubators”.
Startup loans will be offered to students and new graduates with ventures attached to the tertiary institution or designated private accelerator. Albanese believes this will assist in the identification of opportunities for commercialisation of university research.
Startup year will train up to 2,000 students per year and will be supported by HELP/HECS loans, up to a maximum of AU$11,300.
The loans can go towards paying for things such as training, equipment, or building prototypes.
Expanding further on this plan, Shadow Minister for Industry and Innovation Ed Husic said Labor wants to send a signal to young Australians that it “backs them and their ideas to build new firms and new jobs”.
“We want to do that through the range of university accelerators that exist across the country. We want to work with the university sector and others in the innovation space to determine how we do that selection process. And the big thing for us is to build that momentum, build that interest in starting new firms. Because really, what we need to see in this country apart from current firms getting bigger and stronger, we need to see an influx of new firms coming in with new ideas to improve the way the economy works,” he said.
This requires, however, talented people on the ground to do the work that will support startups and encourage their growth, Husic declared.
“If you’ve had a federal government that continually cuts or fails to support the university sector can’t get its act together on commercialising the research and ideas coming out of universities is cutting TAFE and is dragging the chain on innovation, this is a real problem,” he continued.
On Tuesday night, the government unveiled a “patent box” to drive research in medical and biotech technologies, and a National Centre of AI Excellence. Husic said the first was taken from similar overseas initiatives and the second was stolen from his party.
HelpSystems expands email, cloud security portfolio with acquisition of Agari, Beyond Security
HelpSystems has announced the acquisition of Agari and Beyond Security as the firm continues to expand its cybersecurity portfolio.
The financial details of the transactions were not disclosed.
Headquartered in Cupertino, California, Beyond Security is a provider of automated vulnerability assessment and compliance solutions.
The firm’s products, beSecure, beSource, and beStorm, cover vulnerability scanning and management, code analysis, and black box testing.
“The team and solutions from Beyond Security will fit into HelpSystems’ popular infrastructure protection portfolio featuring Digital Defense, Core Security, and Cobalt Strike,” the company says.
This is the second acquisition made public by HelpSystems this week. On Thursday, the company also announced a deal to secure Agari, a Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions provider for phishing protection based in Foster City, California.
Email, when combined with social engineering, leads to business email compromise (BEC) and may result in wider compromise of enterprise networks. Agari solutions attempt to filter out phishing attempts using data science, machine learning (ML), and cloud computing.
Agari is also a founding member of the consortium which created the Domain Message Authentication Reporting Conformance (DMARC) email authentication standard, a technical standard designed to prevent phishing, spam, and spoofing.
“Cybercriminals increasingly use email as a prime way to infiltrate businesses and gain access to sensitive data and IP, causing untold damage in terms of cost and reputation,” commented Kate Bolseth, HelpSystems chief executive. “We’re thrilled to welcome Agari and their email phishing defense prowess to the HelpSystems family. Agari will be a notable asset to HelpSystems as we work together to give global customers new tools for securing their valuable data and achieving peace of mind.”
The purchases build upon the acquisition of Texas-based Digital Defense in February, a company that develops SaaS vulnerability scanning, network asset analysis, and risk score generation software to assist IT teams in patch and remediation efforts.
Previous and related coverage
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