Saturday, September 22, 2007

Telepresence and a Telecommuting Robot

Business travel sucks for a variety of reasons. On a personal level there is jet lag, wasted time, and the hassles such as having to take your shoes off at security checkstands. From an environmental standpoint, travel requires lots of fuel leading to higher greenhouse gas emissions. From a business standpoint it is expensive. For all these reasons, I am hopeful that telepresence can greatly reduce business travel.

The result is something called “telepresence”, which HP and other technology firms are just beginning to sell. It is basically a spruced-up version of videoconferencing, but its creators insist that the technology is so improved as to be unrecognisable. Users still communicate via live audio and video feeds, but the speed and quality of transmission have increased, and the screens have grown and multiplied, in order to create the illusion that the two parties to a conversation are not continents apart but at opposite ends of the same table (as in the picture above).

Designers want people in telepresence meetings to appear life-sized, and the tables and rooms at the two ends to blend together seamlessly. (Rooms, furniture and even wallpaper are often identical, to aid the illusion.) People must also feel that they are making eye contact, which involves multiple cameras and enormous computing power. The delays in sight and sound must be negligible (ie, below 250 milliseconds, the threshold at which the human brain starts to notice), so that people can interrupt each other naturally. Sound must be perceived to come from the direction of the person speaking. And getting things started must be simple—ideally involving a single button or none at all.

HP charges $350,000 for every room it kits out for telepresence and, in America, a further $18,000 a month for service. Cisco charges up to $299,000 per room. Dominic Dodd, of Frost & Sullivan, a research firm, says that buyers of such systems find that despite their high cost they quickly pay for themselves by keeping travel bills down. Cisco claims that it has cut its own spending on travel by a fifth this year, and that the 100-odd telepresence rooms at its own offices around the world are almost constantly in use.

Frost & Sullivan forecasts that the global market for telepresence, although still tiny, will grow by 56% a year to reach $1.24 billion by 2013.
Sounds pretty cool. Hopefully I will get a chance to try it out someday.

And even if you don't have to travel for work, commuting has its own issues of wasted time commuting, traffic (both the headache of being in it and the fact you are adding to it), gasoline costs and CO2 emissions. A recent study estimates that 2.9 billion gallons of fuel wasted in traffic congestion in the US every year. To get around it you can telecommute (which saves 840 million gallons of gas a year), but doing so can make you feel 'out of the loop' at work. Here is one creative solution to that problem:
Programmer Ivan Bowman works from home, but still maintains his presence in the office through the use of a bot he calls IvanAnywhere -- a clever play on his name and the name of his employer, iAnywhere. Basically a webcam-on-wheels, IvanAnywhere motors around the office, takes meetings, and even gives presentations, all while the real Ivan remains safely pantless in his home office.
While that robot will get the job done, I have a feeling that somewhere in Japan scientists are working on making a replacement robot that is a little more lifelike.

via The Economist and Engadget

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