The non-profit research and development group in Silicon Valley previously created Apple's Siri and the core technology used by Intuitive Surgical in its da Vinci systems.
Dubbed the Taurus, SRI's new robot is remotely operated using a consumer VR headset and controller.
The Taurus' arms are affixed with plier-like pincers that can pick up and manipulate various tools like a scalpel, sutures or a screwdriver. The robot also has cameras between the two arms, giving it a vaguely spider-like appearance.
With a VR headset (running the appropriate Taurus software), a user can see exactly what the robot is viewing. Inside the virtual environment, there's also a dashboard with information, for example, related to a patient's vitals or the temperature in a vehicle.
Hand controls and foot pedals are used to maneuver the Taurus. It's relatively easy with the Taurus to pick up small pieces and move them around a peg board but more challenging to sew a stitch or move a thin wire.
According to the Thomas P. Low, director of medical systems and telerobotics at SRI, the rising popularity of VR is helping his lab to speed up their research. Previously, SRI's robotic labs had to develop their own graphic interfaces to make robots easier to use.
"Very early on, we started looking at consumer VR as an interface to our robot systems," he said.
Will the Taurus put bomb squads, police or medics out of work? Not likely, even long term, said Low.
"We really see the Taurus acting as a force multiplier," he said.
In the case of battlefield medicine, Low said the Taurus would allow a combat medic to call in help from an experienced specialist in a city hospital to consult from afar and do some of the less-demanding physical work involved in an open surgery.
Taurus could one day allow a surgeon on Earth to operate remotely on an astronaut en route to Mars, Low said.
The robot can already be used to dismantle bombs inside of trucks or other vehicles, without destroying forensic evidence. Weighing around 15 pounds, the Taurus is made to be highly portable and operable within confined spaces.