I Just Work Here

I, robot employee

New 'telepresence robots' could help us telecommute more efficiently, and sooner than we think

Telepresence robots

Chicago Tribune's Rex Huppke appears virtually on the Ava 500 telepresence robot along with two other robots in the device's lineage at the iRobot headquarters, Friday, April 11, 2014, in Bedford, Mass. The iRobotLE (L) and CiCi (R) were commercially unsuccessful, but informative in the development of the Ava 500 platform. (Dominick Reuter, Chicago Tribune / April 10, 2014)

When I envision the idealized workplace of the future, there are three things I see:

1) I'm not wearing pants.

2) I'm not physically in the workplace.

3) I'm on my couch.

Sadly, our modern-day work culture continues to discriminate against pants-less, non-present couch enthusiasts. But don't despair — I have seen the future, and it's on a sofa wearing shorts.

Technology is already allowing people to telecommute across vast distances, giving companies the luxury of finding the talent they want, even if that talented individual doesn't live in the same city, state or country. And the ability to work remotely is a perk more companies are using to retain workers.

But email, teleconferencing and phone calls still prevent a remote worker from establishing a presence in the workplace. Spontaneous interactions are impossible — there's no brainstorming in the hallway, or popping into a colleague's office to bounce around an idea.

The answer? ROBOT ME!

A number of robotics companies have begun marketing "telepresence robots," upright devices that can roam hallways carrying a screen displaying a live video image of a telecommuter. The remote worker can see and hear via a camera and microphone on the robot.

I spoke with Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot, the Massachusetts-based company that created, among many other things, the robotic Roomba vacuum cleaner that is currently striking fear into the hearts of your house pets.

"If you actually want people to have high-quality remote experiences, you need to solve this remote presence in a creative way," he said. "We're trying to create a true immersive remote presence — I'm trying to build you. So you can attend meetings not as the forgotten, disembodied black spider phone thing, or the strange floating head that's up there on a screen until we need to use PowerPoint, but as the guy who shows up at the meeting, sits down and participates in a way completely analogous to you being there in person."

iRobot has created — and some companies have begun using — the Ava 500. It looks like a sleek, round-based pedestal with a rectangular high-definition screen mounted on its wide neck.

The screen slides up and down to simulate a standing or sitting position, keeping interactions on roughly the same eye-to-eye level with people. The remote user can pivot the screen 360 degrees and move the robot in any direction. (The robot has sensors so it doesn't run into people or walls.)

Angle said they intentionally steered clear of giving Ava 500 a human form.

"We had to create a stylized, attractive form for the robot that wasn't gender specific but had a gravitas and scale volume and fidelity that would make the remote user feel good about representing themselves," he said. "And the people on the other end would look at it in a friendly way where the robot wasn't distracting because of its failed attempt to look like a person."

Basically, if the robot looked too human it would be seriously creepy. So they stuck with a non-human design that makes Ava 500 substantial enough to give people the sense that there's a presence beyond just a face on a screen.

The robot memorizes the layout of an office building, allowing a remote user to simply press a point on a map to dispatch Ava 500 to a certain office or conference room. Once there, the worker "teleports" into the robot, appearing on the screen and engaging with whoever's around.

On a recent morning, the folks at iRobot allowed me to teleport into an Ava 500 at their facility. I woke up, made some coffee, ran water over my hair so it looked like I had showered, put on a moderately appropriate shirt and made a point of not putting on pants. (Don't worry, I was wearing shorts.)

Within minutes, I was linked up with the Ava 500 using an app on my iPad and teleconferencing software on my desktop computer. I controlled the robot, the screen height and the camera direction via the iPad touch screen, zipping around with ease and making lots of cliché robot sounds — BLEEP! BLORP! — because I have the maturity of a 12-year-old boy.

It was amazing. I spoke with two iRobot employees and a photographer, followed them to different locations and checked out displays in the company's robot museum.

Before long, the inherent strangeness of the experience melted away and I understood why they call it an immersive experience. This was different than using Skype or making a conference call — I was able to react to facial cues, turn my attention to other people as they spoke and engage in a much more conversational manner.

"The difference in metaphor is that anything that you can do if you were in a meeting physically, we want to try to mimic and replicate using a robot," Angle said. "The feeling was that if we did a good enough job, meetings could take place identically to how they would take place if you were there in person."

The price for this technology is steep — one Ava 500 costs $69,500. But it can allow companies to bring people from far-off distances into a workplace without paying for flights or hotel rooms, and remote workers tend to reduce company costs by requiring less office space.

Devices like Ava 500 are going to become common in many workplaces. It's an inevitable step in sorting out how best to mix technology with our human need for some form of spontaneous interaction.

As a pants-loathing worker, I look forward to a day when I can plunk down on the couch and dispatch my robotic counterpart to the office. I just need to figure out a clever way to expense $69,500.

NOTE TO READERS: Whether you have robot co-workers or not, I hope you'll consider nominating your company for the Chicago Tribune's annual Top Workplaces survey. You can sign up online at chicagotribune.com/nominate or by calling 312-878-7356. And make sure you do it by May 31!

TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at ijustworkhere@tribune.com, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.

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