Three reasons why telepresence robots trump videoconferencing

Still in the early stages, telepresence robots offer big advantages apart from their cool factor that could generate interest as their price and performance improves.

I've been on a robot kick lately, but in this post I'm going to discuss a trend that hits a little closer to home and could have implications for office workers in just a few years: the rise of telepresence robots (aka telebots).

Still in early stages, telebots are mobile machines outfitted with cameras, screens, speakers and microphones to allow remote workers to interact with on-site colleagues. Using a computer remotely, a person steers an avatar robot around an office to attend meetings or a facility to make inspections while bewildering unsuspecting onlookers.

Is this the future of the office workforce? (Credit: Anybots, Inc.)

The game is on to create less clumsy and more socially acceptable robots for the office. New models from companies like Anybots and VGo Communications have hit the marketplace while newcomers Suitable Technologies and iRobot--makers of the Roomba vacuum cleaner-- are looking to push the envelope with larger screens that can convey facial expressions and gestures for better two-way communication.

Like high-end corporate telepresence and videoconferencing systems, telebots are expensive with some costing $15,000 and even $40,000. Consequently, they've found few corporate applications (e.g., executive speeches) and some wins in both the medical and education fields.

Today, videoconferencing is by far more practical for businesses looking to reduce or eliminate the cost of business travel. Telepresence robots seek the same objective, but offer three big advantages apart from their cool factor that could generate interest as their price and performance improves:

  1. Move beyond the meeting room - This one is pretty obvious, but being part of the action and having the mobility to join a group as it leaves a conference room for a break or wander the hallways for chance encounters with coworkers means a telepresence robot is the only next best thing to actually being there--at least until teleportation arrives.
  2. They do a better job of being you - Even life-sized and in HD, you are still represented in 2D on a screen. As a human-controlled robot you take on a 3D construct among the people your interact with, just as if you were there in person. In fact, telebots are taking on a more realistic appearance and becoming anatomically correct.  Someday, you may be sending your android twin to close a deal.
  3. Quality and compliance work - Moving away from the office environment, Dr. Brian Glassman, at Purdue University recently commented about a case for augmented telebots on Technology Review: "Many factories need consistent inspection, some of these factories are either hostile (require hard hats) or are remote and time consuming and expensive to travel to. Having telepresence robots which can visually inspect things, (using IR, telescoping video, or using microscopes) will give companies the ability to conduct inspection from HQ and make more frequent inspections (travel time takes away from work time)."

Further reading:

DesignNews: The Dawning of the Office Robot

Technology Review: Telepresence Robots Seek Office Work

e-Discovery Team: On Vacation and Can’t Attend an Important Meeting? Use a Robot Stand-in!