The state of telepresence: Being there when you can't

robots peyrl herrera
Credit: flickr / Peyrl Herrera

I recently moved around in an office nearly 3,000 miles away from where I was sitting.  OK, not me exactly.  It was more like my double.  Using Skype to connect, I sat at my desk and maneuvered what is essentially a robot around an office suite in the San Francisco area, talking to the occupants, and moving about, even in and out of one of the offices.  I swiveled, moved ahead, and then sped forward, slowly getting comfortable with my keyboard controls to navigate.  I tried to get a sense of how wide my robotic self was and, at first, worried that I might run into door frames as I passed from one room to another.  I pressed on the arrow keys on my keyboard to select my direction, go forward and backward, and turn right or left.  I slowly became more confident with the controls.  I managed to make my robot self a little taller (something that I wish that I could do with my body) and adjusted my view.  Through the robot's screen, I smiled at the other people in the room, asked about their new offices, admired the view of the San Francisco Bay and began to think about how telepresence technology could dramatically change the experience of telecommuting.

double robotics ted eytan flickr / Ted Eytan

This could be you

Establishing one's telepresence is an interesting option for people like me who generally sit in their comfortable home offices and telecommute to their jobs.  With a robot to carry our voices and faces around the office space, rather than simply joining in audio or audio/video conference calls, we would get to move around in the physical space in the form of our "doubles".  We could chat with our office mates, sit it on meetings, wander around the suites, have candid conversations with our bosses (yes, seeing each others' faces can make a difference) and get a feel for how busy life is in the cubicles.

For a telecommuting Unix sysadmin, similarly significant changes have been happening at intervals during my career.  Long gone are the days when I would spend hours sitting at my servers' keyboards.  Like so many in my profession, I've gone through VPNs (being on a private network from a remote location), console servers (bringing the system console to my desktop), voice and video conferencing (bringing coworkers to my screen), to virtual desktops (doing my work a virtual system on a remote private network).  And in my current role as a full-time telecommuter, while I don't miss the 2-3 hours a day of driving, I do miss the small spontaneous interactions that I used to have with my coworkers.  Even on an audio/video conference connection, the constraints of a fixed view and my dependence on the position of the microphone relative to the people in the room always make the experience constrained and somewhat challenging.

double robotics confroom ted eytan flickr / Ted Eytan

Meandering around the office as your double

Using telepresence, you could meander around, chat informally, and get a sense for what's happening in the office.  You could catch up with people walking down the hall, position your robot in the meeting room so that you get a good view of the presentation and each speaker, and remind people that you're still around and still involved in your shared projects.

You could monitor equipment by going over and looking at it.  You could navigate around the data center checking on the status of systems by examining warning lights or status displays.  Projecting yourself into the space with an easily movable robot, you would no longer be constrained to sitting in one spot like you do when teleconferencing.

There are a lot of benefits in being able to establish your presence in the office, especially if you have a job in which you need to interact with numerous people and they're far away and need your help fairly frequently.  And, after having a chance to maneuver around an office in the form of my double, I was amazed at how much more natural it felt to talk with people and how much I enjoyed my virtual presence in their office suite.  It really was the next best thing to being there.

By the way, the "double" that I got to take on my test drive was a Double 2 by Double Robotics.  Double 2 rolls more smoothly over cords and bumps (i.e., has better lateral stability) than Double Robotics' earlier version, has an improved camera kit and can go 80% faster -- nice if you want to keep up with people walking down the hall.

Of course, even today's best robots today aren't going to allow you to do the kind of work that you'd likely be doing if you were there in person.  You can't go up to a keyboard and start typing, you can't set up a new server or attach it to the network, and you can sing happy birthday, but you can't get a slice of cake.  But, given the advances that we're seeing -- faster movement, more stability, and wider views -- your robotic presence is likely to be a lot more effective than you might have imagined and, as I can tell you from my recent experience, a lot of fun.

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