It's an interesting point, but you don't have a leg to stand on. Photo: Intel Free Press

Wednesday 7th January 2015

Be there or be square

Will telepresence robots catch on in 2015?

It’s your first big meeting of the year. You’re in the boardroom. (Or maybe the ‘telecon’ room, if you work for a flash multinational.) You look around you, and everybody seems – strangely – quite thin.

Dammit – is there a new post-Christmas diet no-one’s told you about? Nope. It’s just that everyone else isn’t actually there. They’re just screens stuck on top of what look like motorised broom handles.

And that, in essence, is where teleconferencing is heading. Basically, you have your own ‘robot’, usually a metal frame which can have a screen (probably a tablet) slotted on the top of it at eye level. You can manipulate your robot remotely, which means that you can use it not just in fixed situations such as sit-down meetings, but also to ‘walk’ around the office, dropping in on conversations and checking that your distant subordinates aren’t overdoing their fag break allowance.

There are a number of businesses in – who’d have thunk it? – Silicon Valley that reckon sooner or later we’ll all be using these robots. (Don’t believe us? Check out the likes of MantaroBot, Double Robotics, RoboDynamics and iRobot.) You can buy one from the Apple Store that looks like a cross between a Segway and a selfie stick. That costs about $2,500 dollars, and is considerably cheaper than the one from Suitable Technologies, which has supplied the likes of Microsoft and Mars with ‘Beams’ costing closer to $20K.

Any model you like, so long as it’s geek.

Manufacturers are keen to convince us that the applications are manifold. Yes, they’re an alternative to business travel, even daily commuting. But they can also be used to attend distant training sessions, college lectures, sales meetings and conventions.

Suitable Technologies market Beams to medical organisations – doctors can apparently get around much quicker when they’re slimmer and on wheels. One CEO uses them to meet every new member of his staff, presumably while staying at home in his mansion and sitting on a toilet made of 32 carat gold.

Here are a few questions the sales spiels we’ve seen haven’t answered, though.

  1. Can the robots go up stairs? Or will your robot end up trapped at the bottom of a flight, like a Dalek?
  2. Do the robots automatically know when someone tapes a sign saying ‘Kick Me’ or ‘I am a prat’ on the reverse of a screen?
  3. If we send a robot to our parent’s nursing home, is that morally the same as actually going to the home ourselves?
  4. When you use a robot in a meeting, does it disguise the fact you’re actually playing Candy Crush under the table?
  5. Are versions available in which your face is automatically Photoshopped so you look more like Angelina or Brad?

We think the companies should tell us the answers. But preferably, in person. These telepresence robots are pretty creepy.

About the author

Andrew Baird

Andrew is the CEO of HRville. He is also Employer Brand Director of Blackbridge Communications, Editorial Director of Professionals in Law and an associate of The Smarty Train. Previously, he was the MD of TCS Advertising.