Pushing the boundaries of robotic telepresence

Note from me to financial controllers/corporate decision makers/IT guys (July 13 2013)

All – I would like to try out, for one month, being an Anybot. Basically this is a remote controlled webcam/video conferencing robot that would be based in head office and linked to my laptop in DC or wherever else I am. Using it I can join meetings in a more dynamic way – like see who is talking, ramble around the office, chat to people in the hallway, and generally feel more connected to the office than I do currently.

I think we will see robots like this being increasingly used in offices and clearly they have significant workplace implications not just in terms of logistics – where are they charged and stored, how are they maintained, etc. but also cultural and social implications – how easy is it to relate to a work colleague who is a video screen on a segueway? How effective are they in helping people feel and stay connected? How much can they save in travel costs?

Verizon is using similar robots in classrooms for students who can't physically get to schools.

Note to all Head Office staff (August 6) following proposal acceptance
This is what you'll see from sometime during week of August 12. A colleague in some other location will be joining meetings, rolling down the corridor to greet you, and generally being (differently) on-site rather remote. Test drive an Anybot yourself here. If you have any questions let me know.

Extract from technical set up note from Anybots team
Both the QB and desktop client need to make bidirectional UDP connections from QB port range 8880-8900 to external port 3478. If the video doesn't populate during the test drive session, then we know that your firewall is blocking the ports needed to control the robot. The options at this point are to open the ports or to use a 4G WiFi device. Note that 4G can also be 'spikey' and not deliver a consistent bandwidth. If this happens, the anybot can behave a little erratically and the driver will have difficulty. (My wry thought – this could be a description of some humans I know).

Note from IT guy (August 9)
The Anybot is here. I took for a test drive on Friday and it got lots of attention. See attached photos. There is a bit of a challenge with the wireless receiver it uses in that I had difficulty seeing the audio/video stream. I was able to navigate around using my 35+ years of video-game-playing dexterity but this will be a challenge for the uninitiated.

Summary of flurry of emails between August 9 and August 13 when we thought lots of people might want to test it leading to the point made by the Anybots minder that: 'I think we need to create a protocol for the use of the Anybot, as my babysitting responsibilities will need some limits.'

A 5-step guide to booking and using the Anybot circulated to people who signed up to use Anybot. Step 5 being:
'20 minutes before the meeting alert your escort. He/she can collect 'you' from the desk beside Tom's on the second floor. The escort is needed because wifi round the office elevator banks is intermittent. Therefore:

  • Someone from that meeting you are remotely attending will have to guide Anybot through that zone and if necessary wheel the Anybots (if wifi connectivity is lost in transit)
  • The escort will also need to guide 'you' Anybot back to the home base (by Tom's desk)'

NOTE: For the one month trial period Tom became the permanent escort/caretaker for Anybots. Giving rise to 'I'm willing to be helpful if Anybot has a robo-emergency during the day, but want to avoid being paged every time Anybot's wifi connectivity goes out when someone is driving it around, for example (and this seems to happen with some frequency.) '

Notes from remote users i.e. offsite driving the anybot at head office
Vera: I tried it and it was a great experience. It is like you are sitting in the room. A lot better than the regular video rooms. It was great fun.
Hugh: The blanking on the wifi was difficult but when it worked, it worked really well. I very much appreciated the fact that I could move around during the meeting, as there were items I needed to visually inspect on the walls and on display.
Sara: So I took anybot for a spin to see Ryan. It was fun to drive him. I couldn't hear folks very well unless they spoke up closer to the anybot. It got easier to drive after practice. I can see that it'd be easier over time.
Chris: I have logged on to the anybots system and it looks like I am ready to go for the 1pm call. One challenge though: based on what I am seeing in the camera, I looks like the bot is on the first floor at the base of the steps. I've never actually used the elevators in your building, only the stairs, so I'm not sure how I would get the bot up to my meeting. Also, my meeting is in conference room 3 and I couldn't find that from here if my life depended on it 🙂 Any advice? (NOTE: Tom escorted Chris to the conference room).
Skip: I must be doing something wrong, my screen gets stuck here… it's been like ten minutes, might it be that the bots are occupied? NOTE: This comment highlighted the fact that the Anybot has to be manually switched on at home base by Tom. If people assumed it was already on and they could take control it didn't happen. In this case Skip gave up and instead 'I ended up using the one at the Anybot facility instead. Navigation was intuitive yet I felt invasive even in the absence of people to observe, very interesting nonetheless.'
Nancy: The maneuverability takes some practice but once rolling down the corridor meeting Linda and a few others for a casual chat was great fun. And in the meeting I went to the immediate presence is much more engaging than being on the other end of a speaker phone – it's a lot easier to participate and see what's going on in the room. On the downside the audio/sound balancing wasn't good and also people could hear noise from my end even when I had the mute button on.

Comments from on-site people
An escorting comment from Tom. I was able to escort Sara over to Ryan, and we were stopped along the way a number of times by persons wanting to chat! A fascinating series of interactions. At any rate, Sara is now conversing with Ryan, and he will bring Anybot back to my workstation when done.
Rick: The anybot is loud when being used in the open office for conversation. I am attempting to work next to Kim while she is anybotting with George and it is extremely difficult due to the volume. It literally turned heads in a radius of 20+ feet. We are all grinning (barely) and bearing it.
Grace: The presence of the Anybot in the meeting does provide something slightly superior than a computer or a video conference screen-—in that it cannot be so easily ignored (due to its autonomous mobility).
Jack: Roaming is definitely something that should be encouraged, as it highlights the serendipitous and impromptu features of the Anybot.

End of month learning:
So there we have it. A month of smallish experimentation with lots learned about the pluses and minuses of using a robotic telepresence. Some of the things we found:

  • Our wifi capability doesn't make Anybots use an easy experience though this is possibly due to it not having a strong enough antenna to keep it connected during normal operation.
  • Only a small number of people actually signed up and used it – though lots expressed interest in doing so. Reasons for this include the 'price of entry' being too high. It involves registering with Anybots, getting initial log-in, needing an escort, and learning how to drive it.
  • The psychosocial factors – people aren't that comfortable interacting with a mechanical device that looks, as one person said, 'like a scarecrow, not like a softer featured, cuddly robot'.
  • The audio quality on both ends was problematic at times.
  • The big plus for those who did use it for attending meetings was being in the room as a physical presence, and the spontaneous interactions they had on their way to the meeting room. They felt included in a way that doesn't happen on phone or even video. It's clear that by whatever means we need to learn how to include remote people more effectively into meetings and day to day casual interactions.
  • On site there was a big 'wow' factor and an interest in looking at the anybot in action but that didn't translate into encouraging off site colleague to give it a go. We sent out a lot of entreaties to try it. We're not sure why this is. Anecdotally it seemed that people found the human/machine communication a little daunting. It was fine for the remote people and less comfortable for the people face to face with the robot.
  • One staff member said, 'Anybot implies a scarcity of a resource (particularly, communication resources) because of its ability to bring the resource to an area in a mobile way'. He asked: 'Do we have a dearth of communication resources (a problem) that the Anybot seeks to solve?' And then answered himself. 'Not really-—we have a plethora of communication equipment that while imperfect, doesn't garner too many complaints. The Anybot therefore may be a solution to a problem that doesn't really exist at for us.'

All in all useful learning that can help us think through what technical, social, and communication capability we need to develop to work more effectively with off site colleagues with or without robotic help. And home time for Anybot.

What do you think are the benefits and barriers of devices like this that allow remote colleagues to travel the office rather than being tethered to a phone or video line? Let me know.