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Telepresence Robots Bring More Face Time to Remote Workers

Working remotely has its benefits, but it can also feel isolating. Can telepresence robots change that?

James Temple for Re/code

The modern workspace would hardly have been recognizable 20 years ago: We’ve gone from hardwired phones to roaming telepresence robots, from static whiteboards to Internet-connected ones, and from sitting desks to workstations that let you walk in place — all while pairing wirelessly with your many devices. This week’s suite of Re/code Reviews is about our individual experiences with some of these new, cutting-edge solutions.

Some of these products might typically require buy-in from a corporate IT department (or at least a fat wallet). But the growing BYOD trend means that consumers have more influence than ever when it comes to workplace technology. According to research firm Gartner, 70 percent of mobile professionals will conduct their work on their own personal mobile devices by the year 2018.

What follows is a look at some telepresence solutions designed to help bring a physical presence and more face-to-face interaction to the remote worker.

Working remotely offers a great deal of flexibility and benefits. It can mean not having to uproot your life for a job, or commuting long distances. It can mean working in your pajamas, or more importantly, spending more time with your family.

But not being physically present in the office can make you feel isolated from your co-workers — even with all the different ways of staying connected online. When I work from home, I definitely miss the social interaction with my colleagues, and I have a bit of FOMO (fear of missing out). What if Kara Swisher decides to chew out a CEO or interview the president on the one day I’m not in the office?

To address some of the downsides of telecommuting, a number of tech companies have introduced telepresence solutions that are designed to bring more face-to-face interaction and a physical presence for remote workers. I’ve been testing a couple of the products over the past several weeks, and I see their potential. But they’re still far off from being mainstream products.

There are also a few new etiquette rules to keep in mind for office robots, which we explored in the video below:

The first device I tried is called Double, by Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company Double Robotics. Double is a telepresence robot that is best described as an iPad mounted on a Segway. Using the company’s Web-based or iOS app, you can video chat with people and maneuver the robot remotely.

Double Robotics says the latter is what makes its solution better than using Skype, FaceTime or some other videoconferencing app on your phone or laptop. It’s a physical presence that you can move around the office to attend meetings, or pull up to the lunch table to socialize with co-workers.

It’s not cheap, though. Double costs $2,500, and you have to supply your own iPad. It’s compatible with any camera-equipped iPad, though the company recommends using an iPad Air or iPad Air 2 for better video quality and Wi-Fi. You can also get other accessories like a charging dock ($300), a travel case ($700) or audio kit ($100) if you find the iPad’s speakers aren’t loud enough.

Bonnie Cha for Re/code

Setup and assembly is easy; I was up and running in about 10 minutes. Double connects to the iPad via Bluetooth, and relies on the tablet’s Wi-Fi or cellular connection to communicate with the Web and mobile apps.

To drive the robot, you can use the arrow keys on your keyboard or the onscreen buttons on the mobile app, and the iPad’s front- and rear-facing cameras provide a view of your surroundings.

I found that it takes some practice to master controlling the robot. And while Double’s gyroscope and accelerometer are supposed to help stabilize it, it fell over after running over a pile of electrical cords. No off-roading for Double!

Everyone’s initial reaction to Double, including my own, was a combination of amusement, curiosity and trepidation. On the first day, my officemates stopped in their tracks when they saw “me” cruising by. A few wanted to snap and share photos of their faces looming on the Double’s iPad, like an office-nerd version of a selfie.

Later, I felt like a creep rolling up to a couple of co-workers talking in the middle of the hallway. Judging by their facial expressions, I was interrupting an important discussion. Still, they stopped to have a short conversation with me. It’s a face-to-face interaction that wouldn’t have happened without Double.

Once the novelty of Double wore off, using it in meetings didn’t feel so weird. I worked from home one day, and wheeled Double over to a co-worker’s desk to chat about some news. It felt like a regular video call.

It was awkward to walk (or roll) and talk with co-workers around the office, though. In real life, I’d turn my head to see the other person’s face while conversing, but that wasn’t really possible with Double. I could only look straight ahead, or we’d have to stop so I could turn and face the other person. I also discovered that having a strong Wi-Fi connection is key.

James Temple for Re/code

Our office’s Wi-Fi network drops off in certain places, and there were a couple of instances where my review unit’s Wi-Fi-only iPad lost its connection and the robot froze. I was actually in the office during those times (working in a conference room), so I retrieved Double myself. But I would feel bad about asking my co-workers to rescue the robot anytime it lost a Wi-Fi connection.

As fun as it was trying Double, I can’t say that it really improved my workflow or helped me feel more connected to my co-workers. I still used email and IM to work on stories with my editors, and I preferred to save personal conversation for when I was in the office. That’s not to say that Double wouldn’t be a good solution for some people.

While Double Robotics CEO and co-founder David Cann admits that its telepresence robot isn’t for everyone, he said it has been helpful for employees at companies like LinkedIn who work remotely full-time.

The education market is another industry where Cann sees telepresence solutions having an impact. He gave an example where a school might need the services of a speech pathologist, but is having trouble finding one because the school is located in a rural area, or they can’t afford to hire one full-time. A telepresence robot could solve that problem in a cost-effective way, while still providing personal interaction with students.

San Francisco-based startup Revolve Robotics makes another telepresence solution, called Kubi, that is being used for distance learning, the medical community and other industries. It costs considerably less than Double, at $600.

Revolve Robotics

Kubi is a desktop stand that can hold any tablet up to 12 inches, and has a motorized neck that can pan 300 degrees and tilt 90 degrees. (Kubi means “neck” in Japanese.) So with Kubi, you don’t have to ask a co-worker to move a laptop or tablet to see other people or documents during a video conference.

While I didn’t test the mount itself, I did try the company’s video software to have a face-to-face chat with Revolve’s co-founder and chief executive Marcus Rosenthal. Rosenthal, who was vacationing in Oregon, had an iPad set up on a Kubi mount on his side.

I simply clicked on the URL he sent me in the meeting invite and the video call began. I could then remotely adjust the position of the Kubi he was using by clicking on a point in the video image, or by using the arrow keys on my MacBook Air. The movements were faster and wider than I expected, so it didn’t offer a ton of precision. But it worked.

Screenshot by Bonnie Cha

Aside from being cheaper, Kubi is compatible with more platforms and software than Double. The company has an iOS, Android and Windows app, and you can use any video chat service you want, whether it’s the company’s own or FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, Webex and so forth.

The downside is that Kubi isn’t mobile, so you either have to move it between rooms or desks for meetings or have multiple Kubis throughout the office.

During my conversation with Rosenthal, I asked if we should be concerned that telepresence solutions are going to further decrease in-person communication, and he said they aren’t going to eliminate face-to-face interaction. There’s no replacement for that, but it can help establish better relationships. He said if we were to meet in person after our video chat, it would feel like we’ve already met — more than if we had just talked on the phone. And I had to agree with him.

But while robotic telepresence products like Kubi and Double have the potential to change the way we work, they still feel a little too futuristic. In most workspaces, mobile devices and communication apps are getting the job done just as well.

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