Sigh, Robot: Telepresence Not So Useful Yet

Even the most optimistic robot advocates say these devices have a ways to go before they make sense for the ordinary office worker.

by Benny Evangelista, San Francisco Chronicle (TNS) / November 10, 2014
Double Robotics Telepresence Robot for iPad Flickr/Derrick Story
The makers of telepresence robots say the future promised by “The Jetsons” has arrived.

Yet after testing one of them here at The Chronicle, we were disappointed to learn the future isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

That’s not to totally dismiss telepresence robots, which put video chat technology on wheels, letting people see and move around one place while they are in another.

It’s not hard to imagine their potential, and early models have already proved useful in certain circumstances. San Francisco mobile payments company Square uses them to connect workers in several far-flung offices, and a quadriplegic man in Los Altos Hills uses it to see places he otherwise couldn’t.

But even the most optimistic robot advocates say these devices have a ways to go before they make sense for the ordinary office worker.

“We’re really just scratching the surface of what’s possible,” said Chad Jenkins, a Brown University associate professor of computer science and engineering who specializes in research about human-robot interaction. “We’re adding more and more capabilities that are still in research.”

To find out whether these robots are actually useful in the workplace, Sunnyvale’s Double Robotics loaned us one of its units.

Founded in 2011, Double Robotics makes machines that are part Segways, part iPads. The 15-pound robot, called the Double, costs $2,500 — iPad and $300 wireless charging dock not included. It rolls around on a cylindrical, self-stabilizing base that looks like a small drum lying on its side.

Attached to the base is a thin metal pole that can extend from 47 to 60 inches high. At the top of the pole is a frame that holds an iPad.

Using Bluetooth

The iPad connects with the Double via Bluetooth. Both are controlled remotely using Wi-Fi or mobile wireless service using an app on a different iPad or iPhone. It also works on the Chrome Web browser.

App users control the robot with onscreen buttons, or a computer’s up, down, back and forward keys. They can also raise or lower the iPad screen, which is important to keep eye contact when talking with someone who is standing or sitting.

Perhaps the Double was dreamed up for open-floor-plan tech offices, but it struggled in The Chronicle’s newsroom, which has lots of cubicles, narrow hallways and Wi-Fi dead spots.

Our Double — which we named Wall-E — regularly rolled in and out of Wi-Fi contact. And steering Wall-E was difficult because there are few obstacle-free paths. Making movement harder is the lack of peripheral vision, though a secondary camera pointing at the ground helped when backing the Double into the charging dock.

The test might have been smoother if we had a Double Robotics technician come up to work with our IT department to smooth out the problems. But we also wanted to see how it worked straight out of the box.

Overall, Wall-E proved no better, and frequently worse, than free webcam technology. Someone said it was no better than Skype-on-a-stick. And for us, it wasn’t a substitute for actually being there — or even a conference call.

We weren’t expecting to send Wall-E out to cover the Giants World Series celebrations — someone would have sent it crashing through a Muni bus windshield. But Business Editor Benjamin Muessig hoped to use it to attend staff meetings remotely. His first attempt, a daily meeting with business reporters, had mixed results.

Muessig was home in Oakland, but reporters could see his face and hear his voice in San Francisco. On his end, however, he had trouble understanding what reporters were saying (at least above the laughter at the sight of his disembodied head). And video cut out occasionally, making it hard to keep up with the conversation.

The novelty factor was less of an issue when Wall-E took his place at a daily editors’ meeting, though the robot couldn’t get into the conference room without help (arms come in handy when confronted with a doorknob).

Failure to communicate

This time, both Muessig and the other editors had a hard time understanding each other. At one point, Muessig pitched a planned story about DNA, but Managing Editor Audrey Cooper thought he said, “Gouda cheese.”

“It’s a pretty good story,” he said.

“I guess we’ll take your word for it because none of us heard a word you said,” Cooper said.

The audio problems might have more to do with office Wi-Fi than the robot itself. But such spotty connections are common in many workplaces.

We couldn’t even establish an Internet connection with the robot on election night — a busy time in the newsroom. Our best experience with it came on a quiet evening when fewer people were using company Wi-Fi.

Everyone who used it enjoyed steering the robot — it almost feels like a first-person video game. But at its best, the Double was more of a fun distraction than a productivity tool.

Teague Soderman, a senior science writer with the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute at NASA Ames, said the agency’s two Doubles save time and money. Researchers from around the world use them to collaborate with scientists without having to fly in or schedule video conference calls.

“It’s more accessible, it’s more personal and gives you an in-person experience,” Soderman said during an interview partially conducted through one of his Doubles.

That said, the scientists needed to tinker with the devices. Due to those same audio problems, workers jerry-rigged pieces of metal onto the robots to better project the sound.

Double Robotics co-founder David Cann said his company is working on a speaker-microphone accessory to clear up audio problems. The company is also looking at remote debugging tools to help solve connection problems.

There are about 3,000 Doubles in use, mostly by companies with employees working at home or in other cities.

Cann said customers want what conference calls can’t provide — those serendipitous watercooler moments that happen during the day.

“They’re saying 'I’m definitely feeling like I’m less lonely,’” Cann said.

Far cheaper alternatives

A well-placed webcam — or a laptop with Skype, Google Hangouts or Facetime — could probably accomplish the same feeling. But Jenkins, the Brown University professor, said that with Skype, “you don’t have an embodiment, you’re not really part of the environment, and it’s hard to jump into the conversation.”

Jenkins recently took a sabbatical to work with Palo Alto’s Suitable Technologies, which manufactures the BeamPro telepresence robot. The company leases that device, which comes with its own 17-inch screen, for $574 per month plus a $2,369 down payment and security deposit. It is also planning to release a $2,000 model with a smaller screen.

Those machines look a lot like the Double, but Jenkins believes the industry will soon move toward more functional robots that open doors, pick up objects and even navigate themselves.

Such robots could help companies “transcend geographic barriers” and change the way workforces are assembled, he said. But questions remain.

“Will that be a net gain for society, or will that be a negative?” he said. “It will do amazing things. But how it’s going to help everybody is still a question. I wish I had the answers, but I don’t.”

©2014 the San Francisco Chronicle

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