VR could one day help factory workers work from home

Working from home is currently a benefit of the IT revolution that's pretty much being enjoyed exclusively by white collar workers, but that could be about to change.

A team working out of MIT has developed a system that allows users to operate a robot from a distance, opening up the possibility of factory workers working from home.

Called Baxter, the robot is your standard ‘grip and move’ factory robot and the control setup uses an Oculus Rift. It could, however, apparently be made to work with the other top-of-the-range VR headset, the HTC Vive.

There are already systems that use VR headsets to control robots, but they fall into two camps: you either have a setup where you see through the ‘eyes’ of the robot (called the ‘direct’ model), which can lead to some serious motion sickness, or you're outside the robot (called the ‘cyber-physical’ model), controlling a virtual model of the robot, that in turn controls the real robot.

Tiny man in your mind

The new system is being called the ‘homunculus’ model, and works on a similar principle to the homunculus argument, a theory that vision works because there is a tiny man (Google 'homunculus') in your head that looks at the visual information being processed by your eyes. 

While the homunculus argument is a fallacy where you end up with a series of ever smaller homunculi seeing what the original sees, in robotics it turns out it’s a solid foundation for an operating system

Once strapped into the VR headset, the user essentially enters the ‘mind’ of the robot, with individual camera feeds from Baxter’s ‘hands’ as well as a third-person camera, and two floating blue orbs that are used for control. We know, it’s pretty hard to picture. To really get your head around it, check out the video created by the team below:

According to Science Daily, the results of the test showed that compared with current state-of-the-art systems, MIT’s system “was better at grasping objects 95 percent of the time and 57 percent faster at doing tasks. The team also showed that the system could pilot the robot from hundreds of miles away, testing it on a hotel's wireless network in Washington, DC to control Baxter at MIT.”

Another (possibly not that surprising) result was that users with experience of videogames were significantly better at using the system. This led the team to suggest that currently unemployed gamers would be able to get jobs working remotely at factories.

As this was just a test, actual factories controlled by users sitting at home in their pants may be a way off yet – but we live in hope.

Andrew London

Andrew London is a writer at Velocity Partners. Prior to Velocity Partners, he was a staff writer at Future plc.