Business Hardware

I, Robot: Life With a Remote-Presence Robot

Thursday

I decide to take QB out for a morning constitutional around PCWorld's offices, so I fire up my browser and connect to him via the Anybots Web app. The video feed flutters into place. I swing him around to greet Mark, and can hear him but can't see him. In fact, I can't tell what I'm looking at.

"You just fell over," Mark explains, as he helps QB to his um, feet.

I figure out what happened: QB’s neck isn’t articulated, so when I turned to look Mark's way I was really spinning the bot's wheels around. Which was a bad idea, because he was docked on his charging station. I should have wheeled him forward a few inches before I tried any fancy maneuvers.

Bot down
Anybot has fallen
That is the only time QB takes a tumble during our time with him, but it's apparently not a unique event. In fact, I notice that Anybots' browser app has a helpful "QB has fallen down" status icon.

I have a PCW staff meeting on my calendar, and am looking forward to attending it. But I learn that it had been rescheduled and was already held--and that nobody remembered to tell me. It's the sort of thing that used to happen to me all the time when I was a remote worker, and it's not an issue that QB helps with.

Late in the day, I send QB cruising around the editorial aisles and gab with the PCWorld editors I come across. Unlike the Macworlders, they don't treat him like a robotic intruder. In fact, they treat him pretty much like, well, me. The conversation isn't completely natural--for one thing, QB has very little peripheral vision, so I swoop him around frequently to look people in the eye as I chat. But it's unexpectedly close to the encounters I might have if I were there in flesh-and-blood form.

Ed Albro, PCWorld’s editor, spots QB and approaches. "Did you write about the new Kindle?" he asks. Um, new Kindle? I hadn't heard about it yet, but Engadget had just posted about an upgraded version of the Amazon e-reader. I thank Ed, return QB to Mark's cube, and rush to blog about the news. And I take the experience as a sign of QB's usefulness: Remote workers who can't participate in hallway conversations miss out on a lot of vital information.

Friday

QB at TechCrunch event
TechCrunch's QB with TechCrunch co-editor Erick Schonfeld. Photo (cc) Kenneth Yeung--snapfoc.us.
I spend the day at Stanford University, attending a conference hosted by technology-blog giant TechCrunch. I'm startled to discover that one of my fellow participants is QB.

Not, not my QB--TechCrunch honcho Michael Arrington has also borrowed one, and he's brought it to the event. Like me, he's apparently developed a symbiotic relationship with his bot: He's currently using it as his Twitter avatar.

I regret that my QB isn't there and have visions of what it would've been like if the robotic twins had met each other.

Seeing a QB out and about interacting with random strangers gives me an inspired idea. PCWorld's editorial staff meets every day with executives from tech companies who visit to show off new hardware, software, and services. Wouldn't it be neat if QB attended one of those meetings? Wouldn't it help us learn about how unprepared outsiders react to a robot?

I dash an e-mail off to Mark proposing that we try it. When he responds, he's politely skeptical: "Gee I don't know, it might freak some people out a little." I decide not to press the point. Later, Mark tells me that he had asked a staffer from another department if QB could attend one meeting and been shot down on the grounds that transmitting video and audio from a confidential meeting to a remote location outside of PCW's firewall presented a security risk.

Lesson learned: Even once a company owns a QB, it might be a while before everybody's comfortable with it in every situation.

Monday

Our time with QB is winding down, but today's a big day: I'm going to attend a meeting with a bunch of PCW staffers to discuss the project. It's being held in the office of Editorial Director Steve Fox, just a few yards from Mark's cube, so I'm not worried about getting there.

I steer QB into a spot near the conference table. Someone remarks that the bot looks like he's standing up even though everyone else is seated. The bot's telescoping neck is positioned so he's about five feet tall, and there's no way to move it remotely. Senior Video Producer Chris Manners lowers it so QB is no longer peering down on other attendees.

Except for a few brief blips in the video feed, the meeting goes great--it's a major improvement on the speakerphone I'd otherwise have been forced to use. I'm at ease; more important, so is everyone in Steve's office. It's the closest we've come to experiencing what using QB would be like once most of the novelty had worn off and he was just a handy piece of office equipment.

I skitter out of the meeting towards Mark's cube. And then I realize that it looks like everything and everyone grew a foot or two while I was in conference--QB's neck is still in the lowered position. I ask Chris to ratchet it back up. When an Anybots representative pings me to arrange for QB's return, I'm sorry to see the little guy go. (Actually, I finagle a couple of extra days with him.) As I said, I'm convinced that the company is on to something. But my robotic encounter has taught me several lessons:

  • QB craves acceptance. Using it as a remote employee is a pretty intuitive experience--it's the people back at headquarters who might find having a robot around the office jarring. And workers who don't like QB might refuse to deal with it, period. (A little over a week with QB wasn't long enough for everyone at PCW to buy into the concept.)
  • QB needs a buddy. Given its dependence on battery power and wireless networking, it's not entirely self-sufficient. If my company bought a QB, I'd make sure that someone in the office was responsible for checking in on it periodically and rescuing it when necessary.
  • QB is either pricey or a bargain. Everyone I told about the robot asked how much it cost and was startled by the $15,000 price tag. If the bot turns out to be a little-used toy, it would be an expensive mistake. But if multiple remote employees call on QB a lot to work more efficiently--and maybe even skip trips they'd otherwise make to the home office--I could see it paying for itself via higher productivity and lower travel costs.
  • QB is a first-generation gadget. Some of the technical challenges we faced were due to features that were still in the works or bugs that were yet to be squashed. But even the shipping version is likely to appeal primarily to companies that are fearless about trying out bleeding-edge technology. With any luck, remote presence robotics will be useful enough that we'll see refined future generations of QB and his rivals.

I'm not saying I envision a full-blown robotic invasion of America's workplaces any time soon. But it'll kind of cool if the day comes when a robot can glide into a meeting--and absolutely nobody in the room thinks it's anything but another day at the office.

(Thanks to everyone at PCWorld for participating in this experiment--especially to Mark Sullivan for hosting QB and to PCWorld Senior Video Producer Chris Manners for the videos.)

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