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I, Telecommuter: Robots, Telepresence and Human Connections

The recent issue of Bloomberg Business Week had an extensive article on the latest developments in video conferencing and connection. Video cameras everywhere are one thing: are you ready for robots?

You probably know about Cisco's efforts: Telepresence and its less expensive cousin Umi. Polycom has a system as well, and they're all really cool--and more than a little pricey. On the cheap end, Skype and a lot of the web conferencing platforms offer cheap, web-cam quality teleconferencing from free to practically free if you don't mind being at the mercy of your internet connection's bandwidth. Now, somewhere in the middle, there seems to be a growing market for robots that move around offices and other locations like people do.

The writer of the article, Drake Bennett, spent some time with Vgo's robotic system. He raises some interesting points. Agree or disagree (and you should read the article for yourself) he ponders some questions worth asking:

  • Do expensive, traditional teleconferencing systems make sense in the way we work today? The challenge with Telepresence and other similar systems is that they work great if you're in a location that has a system and you're speaking to someone else who also is located where the equipment is. That's terrific if you're a big company with an office that people can easily get to and from. If you're on the road, that's an issue. One possible solution is to build shared-use centers in places like convention halls and high-end hotels. The most interesting solution is being tested in cities like Amsterdam, where whole "smart work centers" like Bright City offer the amenities of a corporate setting, but you could have hundreds of people from different companies in the location at the same time, sharing facilities. This is an interesting middle ground.
  • Does anyone really know what the economic impact will be? Cisco stock holders are hoping everyone will stop traveling and just boot up. Don't hold your breath. While some unnecessary travel will be curtailed, there's still value (and perks) in traveling face to face with clients and team members. Some analysts are bullish, some think this will remain a niche (but important and profitable) market.
  • Why do you need roaming robots? The most interesting part ofthe article is his experiment with roaming robots from Vgo Commujncations. Anybots is another provider. Think a Skype interface mounted on a Segway. If this seems a little high-concept, imagine a bunch of them roaming around the office. You can purposely seek out someone's robot ("Joe, I was looking for you") or come in proximity and chat them up "Oh, Maria, since you're here..."). The idea is to match the easy connection of web conferencing with the social patterns of working in the same office. Read the article to see how it went. I'm not sold, but then I haven't tried it yet.
  • Will anyone actually use them? People are becoming more and more comfortable with using technology than they ever thought they would. Research shows that it actually takes very little practice for people to start actually bonding and relying on robots and other technology (place obligatory paranoid Terminator reference here). With a little training, practice and coaching, people get used to new interfaces and machines pretty quickly and comfortably. Whether businesses will use these tools in any kind of large numbers remains to be seen.
The article raises a number of interesting questions and introduces new technology that I wasn't even aware of. More importantly, it demonstrates that there's an important middle ground between "being there" and "not going there" that has to be bridged for companies and the people in them to keep communication flowing when they aren't physically together.

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Photo by pasukaru76 CC 2.0
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