This evening I attended the Educause Learning Initiative (ELI)’s annual conference, but not in person. From my Vermont home I operated a telepresence robot from Double Robotics, and drove around the ELI reception interacting with people. Some first impressions:
The Double Robotics device (which I insist on calling a doppelbot) was simple, even elegant. It’s an iPad on a stick, mounted on rollers, like a stripped-down videoconference system mated to a baby Segue. I couldn’t operate it without the help of Michelle Diaz, who patiently charged the ‘bot then booted it up.
I couldn’t see that, of course. Instead I saw through DR’s Web interface, which was similarly simple:
The central panel shows what the doppelbot sees. The left menu options control media tools, while the right shows what face the bot displays to the world. That last panel also has a control for elevating or raising the bot, which is very entertaining. On the keyboard arrow keys direct the robot to advance, retreat, or turn.
I was able to direct the doppelbot from my rural home, over a wireless network.
Once Michelle and I logged in and powered up, we rolled forward into a reception hall. “We rolled” means Michelle walked alongside, while I clicked arrow keys and watched anxiously for obstacles.
For the next 30 minutes we rolled around a crowded hall full of friendly, often surprised ELI conference participants. I looked for people to meet or reconnect with, then drove straight for them. Many were delighted, and either knew of telepresence robots or figured out what was going on.
The strangeness and excitement of the experience brought out my goofy side. I insisted on “sitting down” at tables, lowering the iPad until it was roughly at the level of people’s heads. I stood in line for the buffet, then shouted “gangway humans!” when rolling at top speed. I toasted drinkers repeatedly. In short mode I snuck up on participants, appearing at their elbows.
The mechanism worked well, but for one problem. The video feed was nearly constant, only rarely stuttering. I could hear people as well as we do in videoconference. Only once did the doppelbot threaten to topple over (caught by Michelle!), which is remarkable for a crowded, slightly inebriated room.
The biggest problem was my audio. The iPad’s speakers are far too tiny to make an impression on a crowd, and were quickly swamped by ambient noise. People could only hear me if they put their head within inches of the device – and to one side, meaning we couldn’t look at each other while talking. An uncrowded room should make this less of a problem, a theory proven by short conversations we held in the hallway next door. Headphones, too, might help, attached to the doppelbot.
One possible productive weirdness: it was strange to see people not acknowledge me in robot form. Most people did, of course, smiling, nodding, waving, or laughing. But some participants saw “me” as furniture, apparently, as they refrained from expressing human connection. They pushed around the iPad, or bumped it. This might be a pedagogical tool for teaching people about the experience of marginalization, or dehumanization.
I expected to feel more awkward in the doppelbot than I did. Instead it had a very Second Life at its best feel to it: simple movements usually just worked, while human interactions offered awkward moments due to lag or altered body language expectations. I gradually felt present to a degree, holding a double awareness of that conference site with my far-away office.
I must emphasize the fun aspect of this experience. This doppel-embodiment felt playful, inclining me to pull pranks. People laughed frequently, and reflected quickly on possibilities, both serious and silly. One participant wanted to dance with me, and I agreed – why not?
After nearly an hour of rolling and hollering, with Michelle patiently walking alongside, I decided to log out. It was late on the east coast, and its embodied space had its own demands. Tomorrow I’ll try another doppelbot session, perhaps in a different setting within the conference.
Readers should try out telepresence robotics, preferably from both sides. This doppelbot technology could appear in many places, and now’s the time to explore.