Using Virtual Presence and Robots to Enhance Mobility is Nearing Reality

Ken Landoline
Ken Landoline

Summary Bullets:

  • Mobility is driving many enterprise strategies and purchase decisions today.
  • Videoconferencing has long been sold on the claim that enterprise travel budgets would be slashed dramatically, however the reality is that travel reduction has been less than anticipated.

Last week I was invited to the “Annual Trends and Innovation Event” sponsored by Polycom, a mainstay of the audio and videoconferencing industry. Held at a local San Francisco restaurant, the annual gathering offers the opportunity for Polycom executives and select business partners to discuss technology trends and strategies with members of the press and a group of industry analysts. While the evening was full of great discussions with an abundant exchange of industry trend information and new ideas, something surprising caught my attention. Among the group of 50 or so attendees was a robot who was mingling with the crowd. In actuality the robot, provided by a relatively new Polycom business partner – Anybots of Santa Clara, California – was there to demonstrate “virtual presence” and its potential to change business environments by allowing remotely-located individuals to participate in events actively, even when circumstances prevent them from being physically present. In essence, the travelling robot was a videoconferencing endpoint that stood just under six-feet tall and had an eye-level video screen and cameras which allowed “him” to converse with other attendees.

These virtual telepresence robots are devices that can “live” in one location, but act as stand-ins or avatars for someone else at a remote location. They are equipped with video screens, microphones, speakers, wheels and a motor to propel them. A person directs the robot from one location and interacts with people in the other location, which could be halfway around the world. Those at the robot’s site can see the distant collaborator on the video screen and talk to him as if he were actually present. The whole idea is to allow a person in one place to be in another place, virtually, for the specific purpose of actively participating as if they were onsite.

It occurred to me that in the future, with some refinement and maybe the addition of speech analytics and perhaps some facial recognition technology, people would no longer be required to be physically present to be an attendee at a business event, social gathering or even a trade show or conference. For me, this demonstration of “virtual presence” verified that active mobility is now a reality and robots are a feasible endpoint to further expand our definition and perception of mobility systems. Using virtual presence, people will be able to move through a space somewhere else on the globe as if they were there, walking from person to person and room to room. Building beyond a traditional videoconference call, they will be able to see and be seen, hear and be heard, and go where they chose with very little preplanning. In addition to the avatar endpoint, a user would simply require a common interface device such as a smartphone or tablet, a browser, as well as a good high speed Wi-Fi Internet connection.

While the particular “enterprise grade” robot I saw was a beta test for Anybots, there are other companies with similar products including Double Robotics and Suitable Technologies, which add credibility to the technology and the potential for broad acceptance by the market. I believe if the virtual presence robot catches on and can be offered at a reasonable price point (under $15,000), collaboration with remote employees would be so much easier and the team would be much more efficient. Perhaps more importantly, disjointed groups of employees and associates would be more culturally interconnected. What do you think?

What do you think?

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