Dreyfus on Telepresence

Emily Dreyfus reports at Wired.com on her experience remote working via a low cost “telepresence” robot. The device from Double Robotics is basically “an iPad on a stick on a Segway-like base.”, controlled in Boston via a not-especially-high tech web interface, rolling around the SF offices of Wired.

Credit: Christie Hemm Klok/Wired

These devices are the flavor of the month in some quarters, and they work amazingly well considering what we used to have to do to do this. The gyroscopic balanced broomstick effect is kind of cool, and, of course, contemporary tablets have excellent spy tech.

For the remote worker, this device enabled Dreyfus to move around the office complex (more or less), to look around freely, and therefore to interact with people a lot more than via teleconference or chat. (On the Boston end, the interface was pretty much a videoconference: the Californians did not have a presence in her home.)

The article recounts her experiences, learning to operate Embot (without reading the instructions–tsk!) and using it in the real work environment. Her diary records an interesting story of her subjective experience, which was all over the map.

She reports how she identified with the robot, quickly coming to feel it part of her “self”. She was embarrassed by early awkwardness, and had a deep dislike of people touching the robot without permission.

Dreyfus really liked the robot for leading her team, because, “I was a part of work in a way I’d struggled to be since I first came on at WIRED.” “Suddenly, there I was, materialized.” It’s not clear why she might feel “materialized”. It’s easier to understand why she also liked the fact that her pregnancy wasn’t visible, reducing the unwanted protective weirdness wired into human psychology.

Reality did intrude in the form of poor audio pickup and wireless dead zones. When the connection dropped out (many times), the robot would freeze with her face on the screen. The humans could not tell she wasn’t really present, which led to misunderstandings both ways.

Dreyfus reports the terrible incidents of crashes and a crazy seizure that made her frantic with helpless worry. The replacement robot didn’t feel right, “It’s not me. It’s just a robot” Further glitches led to a breakdown in the motion, so the robot had to be carried around.  At that point, it’s basically an iPad on a stick.

The many problems led to alienation, as she lost trust in the remote robot. It became a joke to the humans, though not unpleasantly so.

She concludes that “most of the fears I had about becoming a part-time robot came true—it’s an unruly distraction that often makes me look ridiculous, that falls over and can’t be counted on—and yet my coworkers didn’t lose all respect for me”

Dreyfus gives us some interesting insights into how these current “telepresence” systems actually work. Clearly, she was prepared to get “into” it (subjectively), and was able to identify with the limited presence. And the not unexpected problems took a toll beyond the annoyance of faulty IT, creating feelings similar to the loss of a loved one.

But I was frustrated by this report because she gives us very little analysis of why she felt this way. Why would driving an iPad on a Segway make her feel “materialized”? Is it the free movement of the camera? Is it that people also reacted bodily in a more natural way? Were the conversations more natural? (she hints that that might be so.) We don’t know.

Dreyfus does give us a couple of interesting insights. One is that, for her, one of the positive features is that her (pregnant) human body is not visible. Her human colleagues reacted to Embot in uniquely weird ways, but she did not have to deal with reactions to her own changing visual appearance. The constrained and artificial presentation removed unwanted psychological baggage.

In other words, it was valuable to not have a high fidelity, faithfully rendered remote avatar.  The sketchy, cartoonish representation (iPad on a stick) was not only sufficient, but desirable.

Second, she reports a certain attachment to the specific device that represented her remotely, expressing distaste at the idea of someone else sharing the device. Then, when the unit was swapped out, she felt that she was just “using” it, but it wasn’t the real Embot.

People don’t generally feel that way about remote telephones or video terminals, do they? You never even think about the phone on the other end, not at all. Again, why would simply being about to move it around make the remote terminal “mine”?

As far as I know, the feeling of telepresence is highly individual. Some people slip easily and quickly into it, and feel deeply connected. Others less so. Clearly Dreyfus is a very experienced teleworker, with thousands of hours of teleconference and IM and all under her belt. Did this influence her ready acceptance of what is basically a slightly improved video chat? She may be representative of corporate remote workers, but how representative is that? Did she learn to be telepresent with videoconferencing, and then was liberated by the rolling device?

Lot’s of interesting questions here.



Robot Wednesday

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