Here and there: Experiences with a remote presence robot

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I lugged the inert, soulless body around for a few hours, before my colleague some thousand miles away took control of it. Later, as I was flying to Denver, Colorado, there was a conference keynote in Ann Arbor, Michigan I wanted to attend. I decided to connect to the body I knew was there, waiting for me to enter. I connected to the airplane WiFi, paid the charge, and tried to connect. It twitched, but the connection wasn’t strong enough and so it sat immobile and lifeless.

No, this isn’t the opening to a sci-fi novel. It is my experiences using one of Double Robotic’s remote presence robots—a “Double (1)” to be precise. The “body,” by the way, looks like this: 

The Double (1) allowed me to simultaneously attend two conferences hundreds of miles apart, and it allowed a colleague in Arizona to attend a conference in Illinois while still teaching her summer courses.

There are some things I want to note about using a remote presence unit.

  • Embodiment is significantly different than being a presence on screen. There is just enough autonomy to give you a feeling of being distinctly in two places simultaneously. Despite this embodiment, you cannot manipulate your surroundings: the unit is not heavy enough to open doors, and there is no appendage for button pushing.
  • Two things you will likely experience when using a remote presence body:
    • One: People taking photos and touching “you” without your permission.
    • Two: People talking about you as if you aren’t there, even when you raise your “head” (actually an iPad) to look them in the eye.

For me, these experiences were humbling and eye-opening.

Nevertheless, I recommend the experience. Talk it over with your supervisor first and then maybe try leading a meeting using the remote presence robot to “be there.” Or use it to help a colleague attend a conference session or a meeting when they cannot travel.

I’d love to hear about your experiences if you choose to try this unit! To learn more about co-location via a Double (1) unit, contact HDvideoconferencing@umich.edu or visit https://its.umich.edu/communication/videoconferencing/robots.