AI News, Review: Ohmni, a Telepresence Robot for the Rest of Your Family
Review: Ohmni, a Telepresence Robot for the Rest of Your Family
They’re expensive, but the argument is that they work significantly better than a phone call and they pay for themselves since you don’t have to spend so much time and money traveling instead.
We’ve reviewed telepresence robots in the past, and while in our experience the being-better-than-a-phone-call thing is definitely true, it’s still difficult for most people to justify getting one for personal use.
OhmniLabs, a Silicon Valley robotics startup with CMU roots (they’re advised by Manuela Veloso) wants to make telepresence robots easy and affordable enough that people start using them to stay connected with their families.
In order for that to work, their telepresence robot (called Ohmni) is designed to be as independent as possible—you can send it to someone who isn’t at all comfortable with tech, and they can take it out of the box, turn it on, and it’ll just work.
Despite living over an hour away, my partner’s father makes the drive to visit Gerry several times a week, supplemented with phone calls several times a day.
This is a bit unusual—we see lots of 3D-printed parts on prototypes to help designers iterate quickly, most of the time followed by injection molded parts once a design is finalized.
In principle, there isn’t a problem with a production robot using 3D-printed parts, as long as you don’t mind the look and it stands up to wear and tear.
It’s designed to provide good audio and video streaming, with a decent camera, screen (the tablet is included), and audio system, although you’ll need similar hardware on the other end to properly take advantage of it—the built-in webcam on your laptop will do, but you’ll generally have better luck with headphones and an external mic and camera.
Before OhmniLabs shipped us our review unit, we provided them with the login information to Gerry’s home Wi-Fi network, which they programmed into the robot before boxing it up (that’s an option available to any user who wants it set up that way).
The forward-facing and downward-facing camera combination were all I needed, and it was very easy for me to figure out how to move around.”—KF “I think everything from the interface to the navigation would be incredibly intuitive and second nature to any millennial.
With practice, even driving and parking became easier.”—SA While it’s simple to give other users permission to use Ohmni by sending an invitation to their email, it doesn’t seem to come with any kind of mandatory tutorial, which might be beneficial to a new user.
As long as you’re careful to dock Ohmni when it’s not in use, it should have plenty of battery life—OhmniLabs estimates 5 hours, and we never had battery issues unless the robot was accidentally left undocked (and it will warn you if this happens).
While I don’t think anyone (including OhmniLabs) would try to argue that Ohmni is just as good as being there in person, it does have to be significantly better than a phone call to be justifiable, and it also has to compare favorably to more affordable but stationary video communications systems like Kubi or Amazon’s Echo Show.
While not as good as in person, it was a meaningful step closer than a phone… and saved a lot of commuting time!”—JF “While the call was going on it felt better than a phone call, since I could see his facial reactions to things.
It’s more engaging than other forms of contact.”—EJF I’d also mention an experience that I’ve had with mobile telepresence robots— they can provide a sense of remote embodiment, of independent agency, that’s very distinct from something that doesn’t move.
If necessary, Abner can be used to check in on someone (as long as they aren’t up or down stairs), which could provide some valuable peace of mind if for whatever reason the person you’re worried about isn’t answering the phone.
One of the concerns that we heard about using Ohmni was that it sometimes felt too easy—since Ohmni can be logged into whenever it’s on, and part of the point is that it’s always on, using the robot without checking with the person on the other end first (by phone, say) can feel invasive.
I certainly didn’t want to somehow remotely walk in on him in a compromising situation and make both of us uncomfortable.”—KF “I felt somewhat uncomfortable just telepresence-ing in, and I wanted to verify that it would be a good time beforehand, and since that took a text or phone call it was just as potentially troublesome.
The one time I did sign in without checking first, he wasn’t at home, and that felt very strange.”—EHF It’s possible to put Ohmni into a “do not disturb” mode locally through its tablet, but that wasn’t something Gerry was likely to do, and it partially defeats the purpose of having Ohmni so easy to access in the first place.
We askedOhmniLabs founder Thuc Vu about this, and he told us that feedback they’ve gotten from users showed that people are, indeed, concerned about privacy, especially older adults.“We spent a lot of time thinking about how to design the robot to make sure that there were extra layers of assurance,” he says.
At this point, though, we feel like Ohmni does have a little bit of maturing to do on the software side, as Gerry’s family members explain: “I think that when this works it works very well at what it says it’s going to do, but there were a couple times where it simply didn’t turn on and there wasn’t anything we could do remotely to fix it.
I don’t know if there’s an elegant solution for this, but it’s something to be aware of—every once in awhile, you’ll need get someone to poke around a bit and make sure everything on the robot is running as it should.
A frequent request they get from users is the ability to play a video or display a photo on the robot’s screen, so that it’s easier to share media while using the robot.
The value of Ohmni increases the farther you are from the person you’re talking to, as well—Abner was great for us, but as some of OhmniLabs’ beta testers point out, it’s even more valuable for family across the country, or the globe.
When they do, we’ll have no trouble recommending Ohmni as a useful and effective telepresence platform, and a way of staying connected with your family that’s way, way better than calling them on the phone.
How to send YOUR telemarketers to this robot
Thanks to my new friends at Digipigeon (which is an awesome name for a telecom carrier), we have UK telephone number for all your telemarketers!
telemarketers simply don’t care. I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten telemarketer calls from prisoners.
If I owned a roofing company in the Chicago area, why not give a list of 500,000 homeowners to a telemarketing firm and say “call all of these numbers and tell me who is interested in a new roof”?
The audio levels are a little lower, so my robot may not detect noise/silence correctly, but it’s usually a pretty good time.
So next time you get that call, don’t helplessly yell “quit calling me!”
a bunch because there are times the agent will put me on hold to transfer me to account verification or their supervisor.
Robocalls Flooding Your Cellphone? Here’s How to Stop Them
Citing statistics from YouMail, a developer of robocall-blocking software, the commission said consumers received an estimated 2.4 billion robocalls per month last year, driven in part by internet-powered phone systems that have made it cheap and easy to make them from anywhere in the world.
In one scheme, callers pretending to represent the Internal Revenue Service claim the person answering the phone owes back taxes and threatens them with legal action.
This program allows a customer to put the phone on mute and patch telemarketing calls to a robot, which understands speech patterns and inflections and works to keep the caller engaged.
The robots string the callers along with vocal fillers like “Uh-huh” and “O.K., O.K.” After several minutes, some will ask the callers to repeat their sales pitch from the beginning, prompting the telemarketers to have angry meltdowns, according to sample recordings posted on the company’s website.
One recent scheme involves getting consumers to say “yes” and later using a recording of the response to allow unauthorized charges on the person’s credit card account, the F.C.C.
When the caller asks, “Can you hear me?” and the consumer answers “yes,” the caller can gain a voice signature that can later be used to authorize fraudulent charges by telephone.
Just say, ‘I’m not a robot’ please,” he says, which is met with various programmed replies of “I am a real person” and “There is a live person here.” Mr. Quilici compared robocalling to spam emails: It is all about volume.
The next development will be integrated efforts combining email, phone calls and social media to scheme money from consumers, Mr. Kalember said, adding that the level of innovation “is really quite astounding.” “Technology is enabling at a scale we haven’t seen before,” he said.
Meet the Robot Telemarketer Who Denies She’s A Robot
The phone call came from a charming woman with a bright, engaging voice to the cell phone of a TIME Washington Bureau Chief Michael Scherer.
When Scherer asked point blank if she was a real person, or a computer-operated robot voice, she replied enthusiastically that she was real, with a charming laugh.
This number, if you Google it, is the subject of much discussion online as other recipients of Samantha West calls complain on chat boards about the mysteriously persistent lady who keeps calling them.
After answering her questions, one TIME reporter was transferred to an actual human who did not promptly end the call, as others had when asked about Samantha.
A TIME reporter called the company directly, identified himself and said TIME was doing a story about the robot who calls people on the company’s behalf.
When the number was called a second time, a real live employee of Premier Health Plans Inc., who gave his name as Bruce Martin, answered the phone.
UPDATE: As of Dec. 11, one day after this story published, the phone number listed above was no longer answered by Samantha West.
Controversy surrounded the use of robocalls during the Canadian federal election, 2011, leading Elections Canada and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to investigate claims that robocalls were used in an attempt to dissuade voters from casting their ballot by falsely telling them their poll stations had changed locations. Elections Canada traced the origin of the automated calls to a disposable cellphone registered to a fictional name 'Pierre Poutine' at a phony address from 450 area code of Joliette, Quebec, and issued a subpoena to the cellphone provider that produced a list of outgoing calls from the same number.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada have denied any knowledge or involvement. A Conservative party staffer resigned soon after the scandal was reported but has since come forward stating that he was not involved. Elections Canada has made a statement and reported to Parliament, that the fraud was extensive, affecting 200 ridings in all ten provinces plus Yukon Territory. The Council of Canadians, a left of centre activist group, has asserted that the robocalls may have been enough to swing the result by 4%, enough to win a number of ridings in very close races.
As well, he indicated that the 'robocalls' had not affected the outcome of the 2011 election in any riding. After a lengthy investigation of the circumstances of the scandal, Michael Sona, the former director of communications for the Conservative candidate in the Guelph (Ontario) riding was charged on June 2, 2014 with 'wilfully preventing or endeavouring to prevent an elector from voting'. Sona was found guilty on November 14, 2014  and was sentenced to nine months in jail plus twelve months of probation. Sona was released from jail on bail after serving twelve days, pending his appeal of the sentence.
Federal law requires all telephone calls using pre-recorded messages to identify who is initiating the calls and include a telephone number or address whereby the initiator can be reached. Some states (23 according to DMNews) have laws that regulate or prohibit political robocalls. Indiana and North Dakota prohibit automated political calls. In New Hampshire, political robocalls are allowed, except when the recipient is in the National Do Not Call Registry. Many states require the disclosure of who paid for the call, often requiring such notice be recorded in the candidate's own voice.
the message may only be played if the called party grants permission. In September 2008, Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon alerted political campaigns in Missouri that his office would aggressively enforce federal rules (Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991) requiring calls to include identifying and contact information. Robocalls were made during the 2008 North Carolina Democratic primary, targeting African-American voters in the days leading up to the primary in late April 2008, which essentially told registered voters that they were not registered. According to NPR and Facing South, these calls were made by the organization 'Women's Voices Women Vote.' Voters and watchdog groups complained that it was a turnout-suppression effort, and the state Attorney General Roy Cooper ordered them to stop making the calls. The group stopped the calls and no further legal action was taken.
South Carolina had a law prohibiting most types of unsolicited consumer and political robocalls, but in 2010, campaign consultant Robert Cahaly was arrested by the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division, being charged for making illegal robocalls to six state house districts. The automated opinion polling system asked whether U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi should be invited to campaign with six Democratic candidates for the South Carolina Legislature. Cahaly was arrested despite having a written opinion from the state attorney general stating that he had acted within the law. The charges were subsequently dismissed in October 2012. After the charges were dropped, Cahaly filed a suit against state officials, claiming his constitutional right to free speech had been violated.
The bill was read twice, and since it received no further action during the session, it did not become law. Similar bills have been submitted in subsequent years without success. Shaun Dakin, CEO of Citizens for Civil Discourse, testified at the hearing and described how robocalls affect the lives of voters across the nation. He also wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post calling for a Voter Privacy Bill of Rights in which all voters would have the right to opt out of political robocalls if they did not wish to receive them. Dakin, a former John Kerry campaign worker, set up a website called Stoppoliticalcalls.org and claimed to allow citizens to opt out of receiving robocalls. However, there is no guarantee that the registry will stop the calls and since there is no law that supports the database it is essentially an Internet petition.
In 2016, both Verizon and Sprint each launched their own service based on Enhanced Caller ID, which is developed by Cequint and incorporates whitelisting, blacklisting and crowdsourcing techniques. For improved accuracy, it is complemented by a technology called Call Guardian developed by TNS, which performs caller behavior analysis on the 25 billion public calls they handle every year in real time. In August 2016, a 'Robocall Strike Force' of thirty companies said they would help crack down on the problem. After receiving more than 215,000 consumer complaints in 2014 alone, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) strengthened and clarified its regulations protecting consumers from unwanted robocalls and spam emails and texts.
The Commission issued a package of declaratory rulings in June 2015 that clarified the provisions of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) that deal with prerecorded and artificial voice calls received by residential wireline phones as well as wireless numbers. In May 2009, in response to numerous complaints, the Federal Trade Commission asked a federal court to shut down a telemarketing campaign that has been bombarding U.S. consumers with hundreds of millions of allegedly deceptive robocalls in an effort to sell them vehicle service contracts under the guise that they are extensions of original vehicle warranties. The FTC took action against both the promoter of the phony extended auto warranties, as well as the telemarketing company that it hired to carry out its illegal, deceptive campaign.