Avatrina, a team of graduate students at the University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign (UIUC), was one of 15 finalists selected for the ANA Avatar XPRIZE semifinals held in Miami, Florida. It’s Tele–Robotic Intelligent Nursing Assistant (TRINA) is a mobile manipulator robotic avatar that serves as the eyes, ears, and physical presence of the remote operator.
In the fall of 2021, 36 teams competed at the ANA Avatar XPRIZE semifinals. Out of the 36 teams, 15 were selected by the Avatar XPRIZE judging panel to advance as finalists and split a milestone prize purse of $2 million. Each team is using its share of the interim prize — $133,333.33 — to make improvements to the competition avatars. The 15 finalist teams represent eight countries: France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
The ANA Avatar XPRIZE is a four–year, $10 million incentive competition that seeks to “create an avatar system that can transport human presence to a remote location in real time.” The goal is to harness and integrate emerging technologies to develop a physical, non–autonomous avatar system that can overcome the remote operator’s barriers of time and distance. The vision is for these avatars to deliver presence, care, disaster relief, and other unique skills when humans are unable to be physically present. With nearly 80 teams from around the world participating at the start of the competition, the field has been significantly whittled down to 15.
Avatrina was one of the 15 finalists selected. Under the guidance of UIUC computer science professor Kris Hauser, the team continues to develop its TRINA product, with the ANA Avatar XPRIZE finals set for the fall of 2022.
With a focus on robotics, virtual reality (VR), and augmented reality, TRINA is a mobile manipulator robotic avatar that serves as the eyes, ears, and physical presence of the remote operator. Approximating human height, TRINA features a head with cameras and a tablet screen to display the operator’s face, two arms, grippers, and a moving base that the operator controls via a commodity VR system.
The advanced control techniques allow TRINA to complete a range of tasks from gently shaking a person’s hand to lifting as much as 10 lbs. in each hand. TRINA is equipped with audio–visual circuitry so that it can communicate with the remote operator as well as people in its vicinity. The cameras in TRINA’s head allow the operator to see what the avatar sees, and the tablet allows people in TRINA’s vicinity to see the operator.
Possible upgrades to TRINA include:
- Refining the human–machine interfaces in the operator station by incorporating full–body haptic exoskeletons to get closer to the goal of “feeling there”
- Larger batteries for greater runtime
- AI–driven operator–assistance techniques to improve navigation and aid in grasping objects
Hauser is excited to see what advances the field will bring as there are still many challenges to solve, such as video latency, VR headset resolution and field of view, and force–rendering quality.
Real–world applications for avatars
After experiencing the benefits of telepresence robots during the Covid–19 pandemic, it’s more feasible than ever to incorporate avatars in the workplace, schools, and other industries over the next 10 years.
“I anticipate a general trend of lower tolerance to travel and commuting now that we’ve seen certain benefits to working from home,” Hauser said. “If we had the opportunity to instantly log onto a robot to work, teach, or socialize rather than driving or flying for hours, why wouldn’t we? Of course, the virtual experience will not be a perfect replacement for all in–person interaction, but even if we can replace 50 percent of travel, that’s still a huge win in time, cost, and energy consumption.“
“One of the biggest opportunities on the horizon is home health care, since the number of home health aide jobs is projected to grow by more than a million by 2035 in the U.S. alone due to our aging population,” he added. “A lot of the assistance needed by older adults is fairly routine. If you could log onto a robot avatar for 10 minutes to help a relative in the middle of the night rather than having to hire round–the–clock care, that would be a tremendous help for families.”
Scaling up avatar production
As the world becomes more accustomed to seeing and interacting with telepresence robots in everyday life and in crises, the manufacturing industry will have to respond as demand increases across sectors.
“Telepresence robots have already been used during the Covid–19 pandemic to provide telehealth services and communication with loved ones to hospital patients in quarantine, and telemanipulators have already been used in disinfection tasks like spraying or UV disinfection — not to mention their prevalent use in surgery, explosive ordinance disposal, and space exploration,” Hauser said.
“We are tantalizingly close to robots that can directly render physical aid to people — that is, combining telepresence and telemanipulation like avatars — and they will be technologically viable within a few years. The next challenge will be how to scale up production to make them widely available, affordable, and ready to use for the next crisis.”