Being There: How Telepresence Robots Will Change Your Life

What does it mean to be present? What does it mean to be somewhere? For most of human history, the question wouldn’t have really made any sense. To be somewhere, you had to actually be there. Maybe you could be metaphorically present, in someone’s heart, but that was confined to the strictest level of poetics. As we advanced, you could make a recording of yourself to be seen, or call in, or, later, video phone or stream yourself in. But you weren’t really there.

That limitation is slowly changing. New developments in mobile technology and robotics have made telecommuting shockingly organic, even at great distances. Telepresence robots lend autonomy and a sense of motion (along with the prerequisite sound and video) that work together to forge a connection between people. Nothing beats physically being there, but the increasing viability of telepresence robots can change the way we communicate.The Rise of Telepresence Robots

Telepresence robots
Is this the future of communication? Increasingly, telepresence robots are the present. Image from Wikimedia Commons

To start with, what exactly are telepresence robots? They aren’t robots in the traditional sense- they don’t have autonomy. They are, at the most basic level, wheels with tablets. As the picture above shows, they are a video screen with sound capability on a Segue. If you are on one end, you are using a live video stream to see where the object is, and you can control where it goes. You see what the tablet is facing, and can hear everything. You can move backward and forward, from one room to the next. It is almost like being there.

Granted, there are some flaws. Put an obstacle in the way, and you have some problems. But given the impossibility of this just a decade ago, it’s a huge step forward in connecting people, with a ton of practical implications.

Telepresence Robots in the Workplace

More and more people are working remotely. Telecommuting is becoming the way that work will operate. For most companies, though, that doesn’t obviate the need for a physical central location. This can pose a problem. People love working remotely, but being away from the office at all times can create a sense of disconnect. A lack of facetime can make it harder to have a connection with coworkers, who know you only from chats, emails, and the occasional awkward company bowling outing.

Telepresence robots can change this. Right now, of course, they can be a little awkward, as this great essay by Bonnie Cha demonstrates. It’s just weird to have a face on a wheeled broomstick come rolling up to you. That’s only for right now, though. People will get used to it, and pretty soon it will be no different than when a coworker walks up and you have to scan your mind in a nervous panic to remember if you said anything that could be construed as offensive to them.

This makes a difference. One reason why Marissa Mayer at Yahoo tried to cut down on telecommuting was because she felt that it led to a lack of actual communication and inhibited the spread of ideas. Once people get used to telepresence robots (and they become economically viable) you can have this, without needing workers all at one place.

School and Caretaking

Two other great arenas for telepresence robots are at school and for caretakers.

  • Schools. Teachers can teach multiple classes at once with screens, but it still isn’t very personal. Telepresence robots allow for a teacher to teach at once school one period and another the next without leaving, and while still being able to look at and interact with students everywhere they teach. It can save schools money and increase education.
  • Caretaking. As people live longer, the need to monitor their health increases. There will, however, be a disproportionate amount of aging people to caretakers. Telepresence robots can allow a doctor, nurse, or other expert to check in on patients. Many robots can even monitor vital signs, saving the need for a personal visit in either direction. This not only frees up doctors, but allows older folks to have more independence and freedom of movement, since they aren’t tied to appointments or visits. This can also be a huge benefit for families, relieving them of some of the stress when they don’t have the time to properly care for a relative.

The Future of Telepresence Robots

We’re just at the beginning, but they are already improving. Occulus Rift is working on a way to have an immersive telepresence robot that can mimic your head movements and have you essentially be in a place. Look up, and you are looking at the ceiling. Swivel, turn around, and you are doing the same in the room your robot is in. That’s still a ways away, but it shows that inventors on concentrating on this as the next big thing.

And why not? After all, the heart of mobile tech and communication technology is to make the world smaller. If sensory transmission technologies improve, you can possibly feel like you are holding hands with a person an ocean away. It probably will never be a substitute for the real thing- a silent comfortable sigh borne of contentment can’t be electronically replicated- but for people who have to work, live, or serve thousands of miles away, telepresence roots are the first step toward redefining what it means to be there.


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