I was introduced this week to a new concept, tele-presence robotics, via the NYTimes and PC World.
First, the article, The Boss Is Robotic, and Rolling Up Behind You, interesting, slightly weird, but likely the dawn of something much larger.
Mr. Beltzner rolls the robot to a large conference table in the Mountain View headquarters of the Mozilla Corporation, maker of Firefox, a popular Web browser. By swiveling his camera eye back and forth, he can see the entire room and chats comfortably with the assembled team.
An hour earlier, Mr. Beltzner, director of Firefox, was logged into a different robot on the other side of the building to attend the weekly all-hands meeting. With a pink lei on one shoulder and a jaunty cap on the other, the robot was surrounded by more than 100 young software engineers, each sitting with a wirelessly connected laptop.
Aside from the occasional greeting, no one seems to notice the disembodied Mr. Beltzner until he is called upon by Mary Colvig, a Mozilla marketing manager. She wants employees to share the chore of leading tours of the office each week. …
All the science fiction I’ve read certainly prepared me for this. Excited, I thought there must be some cool looking hardware, handling the delicate territory of personal interaction with tech. Nope, disaster. Seldom is the gap between the design I imagine from the description of the usage, and the shock and disappointment of what has actually been built.
Youtube video from PCWorld
Looking into it a bit more, I find the more scholarly IEEE Special section on telepresence
Even worse the descriptions of usage, falling over, batteries dying, difficulty steering. Not only is it ugly, it can seem laughable in practice.
This is the area in which I thrive however, that gap between what something could be and what it is. So out comes the sketchbook. Try and sketch some solutions. The uncanny valley theory quickly comes to mind. Designing the elements needed into something that doesn’t look like a Dalek or a vacuum cleaner is tough. I imagine different systems of locomotion, suspension from the ceiling, mobile laser projections on surfaces, rejecting all of the imagined appearances. Time to break out of the the box. The most complex part of the system is the robotics, the communication system is glorified Skype. Moving a wireless unit around a room should not be that difficult. Eureka, sneaker net. Embrace the oddity with both arms.
Why not use the most mobile, adaptive, and readily available system possible? The human transporter. Since the object is to transport the likeness of a human face for communication, the arrangement becomes obvious. A head mounted unit. The world is populated by possible avatar face couriers, senior citizens, unemployed, performing arts majors, etc.
Teleface is born. A head mounted display unit with camera and 2 way sound transmission, wirelessly linked. Everything is integrated into a helmet-like unit that can be worn by virtually any operator. The entry level costs drop by more than 60% as complicated robotics systems are replaced.
The teleface operator sees interface and environment through stereo glasses on the reverse side of monitor. Headphones transmit audio instructions from the remote operator via web interface, as in current systems. The teleface operator hears the instruction in his or her own language, right left forward, sit, lean forward, cross arms, etc. During conversations between the remote operator and communication intendee, the headphones play music to mask the conversation from the teleface courier. Privacy is assured. Additional features in the internal stereo display, will allow the teleface operator to mimic the body positions of the remote operator. Empathy and NLP come into play, performing arts students bring value to the table.
Now this is a guaranteed shock, it is necessary through careful design to minimize the shock. White colors and soft lines minimize the threat. The black eye covers communicate “sunglasses” with an undertone of blindness. Again the communication of privacy and discretion. A white jumpsuit is recommended as attire for the teleface operator as it communicates a blank slate as well as a workman aesthetic. For medical application generic blue or green scrubs will provide the same function of disguise.
Feedback and discussion welcome.