At the Stanford Robot Block Party in April (part of National Robotics Week) I got to spend a little time with one of Willow Garage‘s engineers via Texai, their telepresence robot. Turns out, they’ve had engineers telecommuting using these devices for quite a while. This is a whole new strain of telecommuting. Not just working on your laptop in your pajamas from home while logged in to the corporate network, but actually able to roam the halls, hang out by the water cooler, catch up with coworkers.
Figure 1 Texai telepresence at Robot Block Party (not me in the picture)
Thanks to some recent reporting at a fundraiser in San Francisco by Singularity Hub (Tony Robbins, Sergey Brin Become Robots – The Telepresence Revolution), we see Google co-founders and other “stars” of the tech world rubbing mechanical elbows with people. Expect to see a great deal more of these devices at media-covered events and parties, as the acceptance of mechanical visitors increases, and the requisite infrastructure (bandwidth, power) is available.
But you should also prepare to see more of them in “the real world.” I’d say nearly everyone who may be reading this has used a conference call before, and the majority have probably used an online meeting service, such as WebEx or GoToMeeting, or even made a video call using Skype or iChat. But those don’t really get you there. Voice chat and webcams just don’t give the same sense of being actually at the event, but whirling around to see who’s sneaking up on you, being able to scan the room and see the expressions on their faces, can really change the way you see a remote event.
Are they perfect? Far from it. The telepresence devices I’ve seen so far don’t seem particularly stable, they don’t appear to be able to handle terrain more adventurous than shag carpet, and their reliance on off the shelf components makes them seem like a jumble of random stuff stuck together (monitor, webcam, wifi router, mobile base)
I anticipate a rapid maturing of this technology. In general, people seem to be very accepting of the devices roaming through a crowd. We’ll be seeing them get a little more friendly-looking, more capable, and cheaper. The QB from AnyBots is one example, although without a screen to announce who you are, it’s probably going to make people feel like they’re being spied on. And that’s important – telepresence isn’t about spying on your friends or coworkers from far away, that’s what surveillance cameras are for. It’s about joining the conversation as a person.
Joining the conversation as a person is where the future of telepresence lies.
How far is it going to go? Just consider how many people are striving to make a humanoid robot. Consider the movie “Surrogates“. It didn’t get a lot of attention, and wasn’t really that good. But it’s worth watching for anyone interested in the future of robotic technology, because it may well be in the foreseeable future. In the movie, most people interact with the world solely through a “surrogate”, a mechanical body made to look like them, and driven remotely from the safety of their own bed. It’s pretty far off in the future, but the seeds of the future may already be planted.
Consider telepresence the “killer app” for those who are trying to make robots that look like people. Creepy people, but people.