For the past few months Mozilla has been alpha testing “Texai” telepresence robots built by the fine folks at Willow Garage. The Mountain View offices play host to two of these robots, which are essentially dedicated Skype machines (webcam, cpu, monitor, speakers) on wheels. Add in some (web based!) software to control the login / connection / navigation parts of the experience, and you get a pretty complete package.
If I want to “walk” through the corridors in Mountain View, I load my web browser, log in to a webpage, connect to a robot, tell it to call me and as soon as Skype is running, I’m good to go. When I’m done, I “walk” back to a charging station, plug in, and sign off.
It’s a pretty painless transaction, and the benefits are huge. I’ve used it for large scale team meetings, one-on-one conversations, and just ambient presence looking to chat with some colleagues. In all cases, the initial awkwardness of being a non-corporeal head on wheels has vanished in the free flow of information. I don’t know if it would work as well if my colleagues didn’t already know who I was, and I’m certain that it wouldn’t work if all I was doing was monitoring a team at work or cracking a whip. But as a way of being “present” without having to board a plane, it’s startlingly effective.
The New York Times wrote a great little piece about it, and shot a video that demonstrates how the technology works. The Toronto Star also got interested, and wrote a piece focusing on me. This has made me “robo-famous”, but I won’t let it go to my disembodied head on a metal stalk, I promise you!