Tech & Gadgets

Telepresence Robots – Cool, But What’s the Point?

Screen Shot 2013-11-12 at 11.29.35You’re sitting at your desk reading this and I bet I can guess exactly what you’re thinking: “I just wish there was a creepy remote control robot driving around the office like it was a sentient rogue Roomba.” Well actually, maybe you aren’t thinking that, and that’s exactly my point.

Several companies are marketing video conferencing robots at present. This is absolutely indicative of a new trend, and some industry leaders tout it as a new means of mobile collaboration. I respectfully disagree.

A typical video conferencing robot, or ‘avatar’ as I’ve heard one of them called, looks like a fancy Segway with a video conferencing screen on top. Controlled by a mobile device, its purpose is to drive around the workplace and pop in and out of offices and meeting rooms, stopping to chit-chat with employees in the halls as it goes. Whether sitting or standing, it is still possible to interact with the robot as it has an adjustable screen.

A typical complaint often heard regarding video conferencing is that it lacks the ability to replicate a “watercooler conversation”, meaning that on-the-fly collaboration is impossible with remote workers. But is an iPad-on-wheels really a practical solution for businesses?

Perhaps it could solve the “watercooler” problem, if you are comfortable chatting with a robot, that is. According to one vendor, “You can have impromptu sidebars, hallway conversations, you name it.“ Vendors like to pitch the robot as a product which “enables freedom of movement, spontaneity, and the embodiment of the remote user from thousands of miles away.”

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It’s the freedom of movement that, at least, sounds impressive. The avatars can be programmed with different locations, dodging any obstacles or people in their paths. Using their screens, the end user can scan the surroundings and interact with others.

Manufacturers stress that these robots aren’t meant to replace systems for video collaboration that businesses may already have in place, nor replace human interaction – and to me, that seems odd.

I don’t believe there’s a model for sustainability and ROI here, at least not in my lifetime. First, the cost of implementing robot technology basically rules out small businesses as prospects, for now at least.

Second, even aimed at large businesses, how many little video robots can a company want or need just for the sake of a “water cooler” conversation? Surely that’s just an inconvenience rather than an advantage in the long run.

Not to mention, video conferencing already has portable, mobile capabilities and you can join a multi-party high definition video conference from laptops, smartphones and tablets. The benefits of working with colleagues via video can already be enjoyed. Your entire universe of contacts is already arguably in your purse, pocket or briefcase.

Finally, when we consider what the robots will actually be doing, it seems that they will be used for spying and micromanaging more than anything else. Do they really allow for real productive work to be accomplished? I think they seem more like a measure for checking up on staff or redirecting those late to meetings.

The only application where this approach makes sense is perhaps for medical purposes in combat zones. This would allow for diagnosis in areas that are too dangerous for unprotected medics. Even then though, the robot’s features would need to be much more robust in this specific case.

In business, the combination of video conferencing and robotics is more of a management device. I believe that if you’re really considering a robot facsimile to replace your physical presence in the office, perhaps you should really be at your office. After all, it might not be the best idea to point out to your manager that you can easily be replaced by a robot.

Do you think telepresence robots will take over the world? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @simondudley.

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Comments: 2

  • Entertaining read. We considered building a roaming telepresence robot and determined it wasn’t practical for many of the same reasons. We recently added a post to our blog titled “Does roaming telepresence make sense for your business?” sharing our thoughts on the subject.

  • The real value of the telepresence robot is that it allows the user to interact with their work associates while they are working. For example you can navigate the robot in to a lab or on to a manufacturing floor to collaborate on a problem.

    The premise that you can just have a video conference call from a laptop, tablet or phone is flawed. Having someone hold an tablet for you while you call in to a lab results in you often facing the wrong direction and when they become bored of holding the tablet then you find yourself staring at the ceiling. In contrast with the robot you can look where you want, when you want for as long as you want. I have worked remotely in collaboration with another engineer in the lab for hours. Try having someone hold a tablet for a fraction of that time.

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