Telepresence refers to the combination of robotics, virtual reality and telecommunications that projects your physical presence from distant locations. In some respects, having a phone call or a video conference or even an email projects your presence over distance, but phone calls, video conferencing and emails lack a physical embodiment. The phone or video screen remains stationary, but a telepresence can move around the office or home. Telepresence bots have been described as an iPad on a stick with wheels. Companies such as Giraffe, VGo and Double Robotics make telepresence bots that have a screen on the front that displays a remote user’s face. The bot is equipped with a microphone, camera and speakers so that the remote person can talk and interact as if they were in the same room. Again, this is not completely different from FaceTime or Skype, but the screen is mounted on a robot body controlled by the remote user that can roll almost silently through the office or anywhere with a smooth surface.
Imagine you are working at your desk and you hear the soft whine of servo motors whirring, and you look over your shoulder to see your boss’ face on a screen peering at you and asking how that report is going. With telepresence bots, that scenario can happen at any time. For example, Double Robotics sells the Double 2 Telepresence Robot. They claim that their $2500 telebots provide the customer with a physical presence at work or school when he or she cannot be there in person. Some of the uses of telepresence bots sound very useful. Double Robotics provides a case study on their website of a student battling cancer that uses a telepresence robot to attend high school, interacting with teachers and students in real time, and even “walking” the halls between classes and talking with friends. Remote education certainly benefits from the use of telepresence. Other positive examples include reduction of travel budget for companies that want collaboration among teams spanning different time zones. Additionally, some doctors conduct patient visits halfway around the world looking at charts and communicating with patients in real time.
Apart from the positive aspects of telepresence mentioned above, a number of articles and videos have been released that deal with the social rules for dealing with a telepresence bot. The link below from a Wired video deals somewhat humorously with establishing rules for people dealing with the bots and for the remote users dealing with office workers. One of the rules suggested states that you should not touch a telepresence bot or move it without first checking with the person driving the bot remotely. It just seems so tempting to just stash the bot when you are tired of it wheeling around the office, but we are reminded that you should treat the bot as if the real person is there. In other words, follow the same code of conduct you would as if it were a real person.
Telepresence robots have entered the office, hospitals and schools as a way for a person to have a physical presence from a remote location. Students can attend class and hang out with their friends when circumstances prevent their ability to attend school. Many other applications of telepresence bots extend a physical presence over distance, but with this new technology, new rules and norms will be needed in the office, hallways, and playgrounds for dealing with the telepresence. Perhaps the evolving code of conduct for telepresence bots is paving the way for human interaction with true artificially intelligent robots in the future.