Terminating the role of human doctors, a UCSB graduate has ignited the rise of machines from the depths of his Goleta-based laboratory.
UCSB alum Yulun Wang, an electrical engineering graduate and founder of InTouch Health, is the creator of the RP-7, short for Remote Presence. The life-sized mobile robot is complete with a 360-degree rotating computer monitor, video camera and speakers that healthcare professionals can control via the Internet or cellular broadband. The RP-7 was first tested at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Sept. 2005.
According to InTouch Marketing Communication Manager Jennifer Neisse, the invention allows doctors to talk directly and frequently with patients from afar.
“After surgery, patients typically only see doctors once per day, but with the robot, they can come twice in one day,” Neisse said.
The robot is currently utilized both internationally in Britain, France and the Czech Republic and locally at the UCLA Medical Center and Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital. In addition to its standard blue color, the RP-7s can also arrive in camouflage form for potential use in domestic Army burn units. Additionally, the Army is currently considering using the robots overseas.
InTouch Video and Artificial Intelligence Technology Director Marco Pinter said the robot is used not only for post-surgery visits, but also for emergencies in intensive care units, when doctors are needed but not present.
While the RP-7 is designed purely for communicative purposes and cannot perform actual procedures independently, Pinter said doctors have used the device in the past to oversee surgeries.
Doctors can use InTouch software on a personal computer to log into the robot and project themselves into the hospital. Many of the robots also include handheld telephone receivers so patients can have private conversations with doctors, along with a small printer for doctor’s orders.
Neisse said the tool is not designed to replace on-call health professionals, but rather, to increase their availability.
“Most doctors will still work at hospitals, this just allows them to be more flexible,” Neisse said.
Several UCSB faculty and graduates are involved with InTouch operations, including Steve Butner, a professor in the electrical and computer engineering department who began working with InTouch through his association with Wang. He now acts as an external consultant for the company.
Butner said several crucial developments were originally made in his on-campus lab prior to being transferred to InTouch.
“Some key technology upon which InTouch bases its ‘telepresence’ product was developed first in my research lab and then later adapted and customized for the InTouch product,” Butner said.
James Rosenthal, another UCSB alum and electrical engineer for InTouch, said his work in the electrical engineering department laid the groundwork for the technology that went into the RP-7.
“We understood some concepts and applied them in our products,” Rosenthal said.
Niesse estimates that about 15 UCSB grads work as engineers at the company, along with several interns from the university.