CoolTimeLife Podcast: Telepresence Robots and You

This blog comprises show notes for my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Telepresence Robots and You.

A still from the Big Bang Theory episode: The Cruciferous Vegetable Amplification.
Photo: Robert Voets/CBS
©2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.

If you are familiar with the comedy series called the Big Bang Theory, you might have seen an episode in which Sheldon, seeking ways to lengthen his lifespan by avoiding danger sends his robot to do his work for him at the university. The robot he sends looks a lot like either a Beam or a Double, two of the most popular brands of personal robot. (It’s actually a Textai robot, manufactured by Willow Garage, which was later acquired by Beam). For millions of viewers of the show it was likely the first time they had actually seen one in action.

Of course, the show is a comedy and the use of the robot included some comedic situations, but nonetheless, it was there. If you are not a viewer of The Big Bang Theory, or you missed that episode, no matter.

The point is that these personal telepresence robots are increasingly becoming a viable alternative to physically being in the office in your human form. But I want to look at this seriously as a credible business tool, because that’s what this podcast is all about.

So What is a Telepresence Robot?

If you have never seen a telepresence robot, go to doublerobotics.com or suitabletech.com and have a look at the photos and videos. In essence, a telepresence robot looks like a screen or an iPad mounted on top of a Segway – a pole with two wheels at the base that is self-propelled and self-balancing.

If you want to see one in action, there is a great YouTube video that shows them wandering the offices of LinkedIn. It’s just 3 and a half minutes long.

A telepresence robot is you, or at least the top half of you, on a screen, which allows you to wander the halls drop in on meetings, talk to people, listen to them, and basically interact as you would if you were actually there.

They are a thing now because supporting technology like WiFi make it possible for you to be able to drive one and use one from wherever you are in the world, and mobility and battery power make it possible for them to operates.

“So, do we need them?” People ask, as they do with any new technology that enters their lives, like cars, microwave ovens, personal computers and mobile phones? Why do we need personal robots when you can just teleconference or Skype instead? The answer is something that its users call the Transformational factor.

The Transformational Factor

Yes, instead of using a telepresence robot, you could call into a conference room. Or better yet, get in your car and drive to the office. Or if your office is hundreds or thousands of miles away, jump on a plane and make your way to the office that way.

OK I’m being a little facetious, but people always assess at every new technological development with their eyes firmly fixed on the past. As the LinkedIn video will show, those staff members who chose to start using a robot often used a key word: transformational. This means it changing the way people meet and communicate, even remotely.

Whereas teleconferences and video conferences are good at bringing people together fro wherever they happen to be in the world, this still means scheduling formalized meetings at set times. Such meetings have their usage, of course, at least, when run correctly, but the robot users pointed out that they were no able to capitalize on those ad-hoc meetings and one-on-one discussions simply by rolling their robot up to someone and saying “hi.”

Such reliable two-way communication was not possible up until now, so now is a different time – a transformational time.

The Presence Factor

The other key concept to be aware of here is presence. Presence refers to more than just seeing a face on a screen as you might with a Skype video conference. It’s about being aware of people in three dimensions. Early telepresence experiments involved attending a meeting using VR or AV, to look to your left or to your right and see people who weren’t actually in the room, but who were there in 3D space, virtually. When you add full stereo sound to this scenario, you start to get a sense of presence, known as telepresence.

VR and AR glasses in their current form are bulky and alien, but that does not mean they are out of contention. Sometimes a technology arrives in a shape that is almost embryonic, and does not reveal what the final form will be. It simply hints at what’s to come. If you wanted, you could call this the Segway Factor.

The Segway Factor

When the Segway was being designed and tested (anyone remember “project Ginger?) it was hyped or overhyped as the single greatest invention in human history, a new form of transportation that would change the world. Well It didn’t.  But what it did do, like so many world-changing inventions before it, is pave the way for innovation by providing a useful tool for the next set of inventive hands.

So the gyroscopic technology that allows a Segway to stand and move may not have revolutionized or replaced the act of walking fast, but it has allows this upcoming generation of robots to move more reliably. Misplaced or mistimed innovations often have to wait a little before revealing their benefit. Think, for example, about the 3M Post-it Note, made from a glue recipe that would not stick the way glue is supposed to. Think also about Gorilla glass – the durable glass coating that forms the face and the interface of most smartphones. Gorilla glass was a failed recipe for see through cookware for Corning. The recipe sat on a shelf for decades until the day smartphones replaced flip phones and changed the world.

The WalMart factor

The other thing about robots is that they are already here. There are thousands of YouTube videos that show robots in warehouses, factories, even in prototype restaurant kitchens. Robots are only robots until you get used to them. Then they become appliances, like your dishwasher, your Roomba or your smart home system. “OK Google, show me videos of robots in houses.”

Premium robots are expensive. Some might find the $3000 price tag of a Double to be expensive, even though it will pay for itself by removing one business trip from the budget.

But there was a time, too when an external hard drive for an IBM PC costs thousands of dollars. Now laptops are just a couple of hundred, thanks to worldwide acceptance and the economies of scale. I call this the WalMart factor. A couple of years from now, you or your kids will be picking out their telepresence robot from the robots department at WalMart.

Maybe the robots in the current form will be out of date in a few years, looking as quaint and clumsy as VR goggles currently do, or a 1985 loaf of bread-sized cellphone now does. But they won’t disappear. They will evolve. The question is, will you?

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Telepresence Robots and You. If you would like to listen to it, you can check it out at our podcast site here. If you would like to review other podcasts in this series, visit my podcast page at stevenprentice.com/podcast.html

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