Picture this: senior living residents and robots seated side-by-side around a dinner table, the seniors discussing today’s news and asking the robot which movie it wants to watch later.
To some, this scenario may seem far-fetched—but not to a Silicon Valley entrepreneur with ties to Google, or the senior care companies he has partnered with.
“Our belief is that personal consumer robots will be everywhere in the next 10 to 15 years,” Thuc Vu, co-founder and CEO of Santa Clara, California-based OhmniLabs, told Senior Housing News. “We want to help with that.”
Google acquired one of Vu’s earlier companies—Katango—a few years ago. The company developed apps meant to help users manage and navigate their social networks.
Vu’s new venture, Ohmni Labs, has created robots designed to foster companionship through shared experiences, he told SHN. The robots—which have screens with two-way video chatting capabilities—are a great fit in settings where seniors receive care, as family members or caregivers can log into the robots remotely and control them from afar to “check in” on their loved ones, Vu explained. Fittingly, Ohmni Labs is piloting the technology in senior living and home care settings through a partnership with Palo Alto, California-based Home Care Assistance of North America.
Above all, Ohmni Lab’s robots can help combat senior isolation, Vu explained. A robot can, for instance, park itself at a seniors’ kitchen table while he or she eats, enabling a distant family member to virtually “share” a meal with their loved one. The robot can similarly be situated in front of the TV, so distant family members can watch TV together, or the robot can accompany a senior on a walk outdoors.
These robots have plenty of advantages over other video-chatting technologies like iPads, Vu said. To start, seniors have to hold iPads up when they use them to video chat, a move that can be “very clunky for them.” Additionally, seniors may neglect to charge their iPads regularly, or they may misplace it in a different room.
“We’ve heard these things over and over again,” Vu said.
The seniors won’t forget to charge Ohmni Lab’s robots; they’re battery-powered, and can last for four hours of continuous use before needing to be re-charged. And with the robots, distant family members don’t need to wait for their loved ones to go online to video chat them—they can check in whenever.
The robots are lightweight and can be considered “a nice piece of furniture that will fit nicely in the home,” Vu said. Ohmni Labs also designed the robots to be uniquely affordable, Vu said. The company hasn’t worked out the robots’ exact pricing yet but plans to use the “robot-as-a-service” model, which involves charging customers a monthly fee to use the robot.
Home Care Assistance of North America, which is in the works of piloting the robots, has 5,000 employees that serve more than 20,000 families from more than 100 locations across the United States, Canada and Australia.
The robots are also set to be piloted at The Heritage Pointe, an independent living community in Walnut Creek, California. Vu and his colleagues brought the robots to the community during a recent luncheon, and the residents—some of whom receive third-party home care services from Home Care Assistance of North America—welcomed the technology with enthusiasm.
“Our residents were really excited about it,” Jennifer Shively, Heritage Pointe’s resident relations director, told SHN.
This level of technology is new to many at Heritage Pointe, Shively said. The community has iPads, for instance, but it has never introduced anything as technologically innovative as robots—despite the community’s Silicon Valley location.
“Technology’s all around,” she said. “A lot of our residents’ children are involved in technology, too.”
The robots will be placed in Heritage Pointe’s common areas, where residents will be free to interact with them on their own time. The robots may also join residents in the dining room, enabling residents to invite distant family members to virtually join them for meals.
In the future, Ohmni Labs plans to add more medical devices onto the robot, so seniors’ blood pressure, oxygen levels and more can be checked from the comfort of their homes, Vu said.
Written by Mary Kate Nelson