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Your Wish Has Been Granted… Workplace Robots

telepresence robot

I love it when categories intersect. Like design and astrophysics, or as in this instance… robots and the workplace of the future. It makes for such fertile subject matter.

We’ve all imagined being able to work without physically having to be at work. Different from telecommuting or working from a home office, I mean having a presence at work that is not actually you. I believe that I actually think about this every day. Perhaps you’ve imagined a virtual avatar, or maybe thought about having yourself cloned. Both may be viable options at some point in the future (and Herman Miller is probably already researching both), but a software programmer in Canada has beaten everyone to reality. Ivan Bowman works from home, which is 800 miles from his office. Previously, he telecommuted and would be the disembodied voice sitting on the conference table. In some ways, this worked well, but not having an ability to interact properly with his coworkers, to look them in the eye and see their facial expressions, was making it difficult to understand nuance, and sometimes intent.

Ivan now uses a “telepresence” robot, a creative combination of technologies, that allows him to be present at meetings, engage in discussion, and “move” around the office environment physically. All of this occurs while Ivan sits in his underwear on his couch hundreds of miles of away. The robot, built by co-worker Ian McHardy, is made from a wireless webcam, microphone, flat panel monitor, speakers mounted on an armature at about eye level and attached to a four-wheeled chassis. He controls it from home, and moves the robot about the office almost as if he were there in person. The robot is him. Ivan could be a brain in a jar somewhere, as far as his co-workers are concerned. He can cruise the halls, visit people in their offices, and look people in the eye. Sort of. To date, this solution appears to be working very, very well for all involved… and has brought much attention to Ivan. Actually, it has brought attention to the virtual Ivan, named “IvanAnywhere”.

This robot represents an important direction in the future of work, in the ways we work, and how we interact. Having a dynamic, mobile virtual presence in the workplace can create all sorts of opportunities for both employees and employers. Think about the difficulty in attracting talent in a particular office due to geographical location. That would be a non-issue. Think about the challenges, due to changed immigration laws and regulations, in company’s abilities to retain foreign residents as staff. They can now work from their home country. Think about the efficiencies this could yield in the physical space that makes up the office environments we work in. If even a small number of people work via telepresence robotics there is a savings in the needed square feet for an office space. That alone has benefits to company overhead, energy usage, waste, and pollution. Could this technology actually be categorized as sustainable? I would argue that it can.

Naturally, this all is a long way off, but is it important that an individual at one company took such an interesting and innovative approach to addressing issues that matter in the workplace. That the potential scale of this approach has so many additional benefits is only supporting of our work realities moving more in this direction over time.


One Response to “Your Wish Has Been Granted… Workplace Robots”

  1. schneiderism » Blog Archive » Telepresense vs. Business Travel Says:

    [...] developing intersection between telepresence, virtuality, and robotics and have written about this here and here. Additionally, it was exciting to see the CEO of Steelcase, Jim Hackett, experimenting [...]

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