These days we see a lot of exciting stories about telepresence—specifically, live, remote operation of robots. From the deadly factual reports from the battlefields of South Asia through science fiction novels to endless videos from drone racing gamers, we see people conquering the world from their living room.
One of the emerging technologies is telepresence via a remote robot that resembles ‘an ipad on a segway’. These are intended for remote meetings and things like that. There is two way video, but the screen is mobile and under the command of the person on the other end. So you can move around, talk to people, look at things.
On the face of it, this technology is both amazing (how does it balance like that?) and ridiculous (who would want to interact with an ipad on wheels?) And, of course, many of the more expansive claims are dubious. It isn’t, and is never going to be, “just like being there”.
But we are learning that these systems can be fun and useful. The may be a reasonable augmentation for remote workers, not as good as being there, but better than just telcons. And, as Emily Dreyfus comments, a non representational body is sometimes an advantage.
Last year Sensei Evan Ackerman reported on an extensive field test of one of these telepresence sticks, called the Double 2. This test drive was an interesting test because he deliberately took it out of the intended environment, which stressed the technology in many ways. The experience is a reminder of the limitations of telepresence, but also gives insights into when it might work well.
First of all, he played with it across the continental US (from Maryland to Oregon) thousands of KM apart. Second, he took it outdoors, which it isn’t designed for at all. And he necessarily relied on whatever networks were available, which varied, and often had weak signals.
As part of the test, he went to the zoo and to the beach!
Walking the dog was impossible.
Overall, the system worked amazingly well, considering that it wasn’t designed for outdoor terrain and needs networking. He found it pretty good for standing still and chatting with people, but moving was difficult and stressful at times. Network latency and dropouts meant a loss of control, with possibly harmful results.
Initially skeptical, Sensei Evan recognized that the remote control has advantages.
“I’m starting to see how a remote controlled robot can be totally different [than a laptop running Skype] . . . You don’t have to rely on others, or be the focus of attention. It’s not like a phone call or a meeting: you can just exist, remotely, and interact with people when you or they choose. “
Whether or not it is “just like being there”, when it works well, there is a sense of agency and ease of use, at least compared to conventional vidoe conferencing.
This is an interesting observation. Not only does everybody need to get past the novelty, but it works best when you are cohabitating for considerable periods of time. Walking the dog, visiting the zoo—not so good. Hanging out with distant family—not so bad.
I note that the most advertised use case—a remote meeting—may be the weakest experience. A meeting has constrained movement, a relatively short time period, and often is tightly orchestrated. This takes little advantage of the mobility and remote control capabilities. You may as well as well just do a video conference.
The better use is for extended collaboration and conversation. E.g., Dreyfus and others have used it for whole working days, with multiple meetings, conversations in the hall, and so on. Once people get used to it, this might be the right use case.
I might note that this is also an interesting observation to apply to the growing interest in Virtual Reality, including shared and remote VR environments. If a key benefit of the telepresence robot is moving naturally through the environment, then what is the VR experience going to be like? It might be “natural” interactions, but it will be within a virtual environment. And if everyone is coming in virtually, then there is no “natural” intereaction at all (or rather, the digital is overlaid on the (to be ignored) physical environments. There will be lots of control, but will there be “ease”? We’ll have to see.
- Evan Ackerman, Double 2 Review: Trying Stuff You Maybe Shouldn’t With a Telepresence Robot, in IEEE Spectrum – Automation. 2016. http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/home-robots/double-2-review-telepresence-robot