Imagine that your family is gathering at Grandma’s house for a meal, but you live thousands of miles away. You want to hang out in the kitchen with them on a video call, but you’ll be at the mercy of a tablet propped up at an angle that shows more of the ceiling than the people in the room, or else someone’s handheld phone that keeps jumping around as they talk.
Bay Area startup Ohmnilabs aims to solve these shortcomings with its new Ohmni robots, which bring hands-free interactivity to telepresence in the home.
Inventing a Better Telepresence System for Consumers
Co-founder and CTO Jared Go got the idea for Ohmni from his many calls to his family back in Boston. He wanted to video chat with his parents and younger siblings, but kept running into the weaknesses of tools like Skype and FaceTime. His fellow co-founders had similar issues: CEO Thuc Vu has family in Vietnam, and Tingxi Tan’s family lives in Singapore.
Go says that using video chat on a laptop, tablet, or phone seems like the natural way to do it—until you start to think about how much better it could be. Corporate vendors have solved some of these problems with high-end telepresence systems, but those are designed for boardrooms, not Grandma’s kitchen. The team is addressing this problem head on, by creating a solution that is much more simple, affordable and personalizable to fit in one’s home.
As Tan puts it, the Internet solved the communication problem; “The next step is how we solve the presence problem.”
Making Video Calls More Natural and Comfortable
The wheeled Ohmni robot integrates a camera, screen, and speaker on a tall post that brings the person you’re speaking with closer to eye level. The user can move the robot around—to watch Grandma cook, for instance—and change what it looks at using arrow keys or a mouse.
Go describes the experience as being “more like a first person game.” But it’s more than just a cool toy. Having the robot “totally changes the experience,” Go says. “It’s so much more comfortable.”
When the co-founders did usability research, they found that shared experiences, like talking with family in the kitchen, are what make you feel closest to people. “Human-to-human—that’s the engagement people really care about,” Go says, then adds, “We want to maximize that.”
The Ohmni robot “changes the behavior of how people interact with each other,” Tan says. He adds that most users experience an “a-ha moment” about the freedom the robot gives them “that usually occurs within the first few minutes.” Go notes that “conversations tend to get longer, and they tend to be more relaxed.”
Creating a Business around a Better Idea
Once they began to test the engagement and stickiness of their ideas with friends, it became clear that people wanted the robot to be the primary tool for telepresence. Go says that insight led the co-founders to say, “Let’s see if we can make this a company.”
On the consumer side, they asked “Who are all the people who could benefit from this?”—which led them into the elder care market. Whether Grandma lives down the road or across the country, by herself or in a nursing home, the Ohmni makes it much easier to check in with her more often. And because the system integrates with users’ existing Gmail and Facebook accounts, there’s no new software for anyone to learn.
On the production side, the co-founders began to work on building an infrastructure that allows them to scale up while constantly making rapid improvements. As Go explains, “We wanted to make a hardware company that iterated more like a software company.”
Tan says they have also focused on using techniques that foster local production. They use 3D printing not only for prototyping, but to make very strong production parts for their robots—all in California. Go points out that, besides the logistical benefits of keeping production close to home, 3D printing also removes risks for investors, who don’t need to shell out for expensive production molds.
Building a Better Production System with Fusion 360
Fusion 360 has become an integral part of Ohmnilabs’ design work for both the product and the production processes that support it. “We use it for everything mechanical we do,” Go says. “Fusion 360 has helped us accelerate.”
Tan notes that the cloud-based collaboration built into the software is “very valuable.” He adds, “It allows us to coordinate the workflow better,” especially given that he lives in Vancouver, Canada, while the headquarters is in Santa Clara, California.
The team uses the software extensively for modeling and rendering product parts, many of which are large unibody structures produced on their own large-format 3D printers. They also use the software’s simulation features for stress-testing load-bearing parts, and they have taken advantage of its capacity to create exploded views in their instruction videos.
They are constantly looking for new ways to “optimize the heck out of our production process,” Go says. That means using Fusion 360 to create everything from packaging to custom-designed jigs, spools, and bins in the manufacturing area.
Putting the Telepresence Robot into Production
With the product in the beta stage and already shipping to beta testers worldwide, the Ohmnilabs team is now focused on scaling up, trimming costs, and ensuring the robustness of their robot.
In the future, they want to incorporate features such as auto-navigation and a controllable arm. Go says they want to keep evolving by asking questions such as “How do you make presence the easiest thing ever? How do you make it more fun?”
The work is about more than a nifty consumer device or a streamlined production flow. Ohmnilabs wants “to make robots to help people improve their everyday lives,” Go says. “That’s our overarching mission.”