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I recently attended an event…as a telepresence robot!

By Neil Bachelor

Ever wonder what it would be like to be in two places at once?

My experience as a telepresence robot was surprisingly like actually being there.

When Craig Janssen first told me he was speaking at a TEDx event, it caught my interest as I’ve watched many of the talks. The TED concept of sharing big ideas in twenty minutes has proven to be powerful and successful.

Craig called me the next day with a wild idea: what if I could be there in Plano, Texas without actually having to leave England? After all, Craig’s talk was focused on how the way we communicate in groups is changing. What if we took advantage of some of that new technology?

We rented a Double Robotics Telepresence unit—which to operate feels a bit like Skype on wheels, with the operator is in full control of where they move within a room. If you haven’t seen one before think about my face filling the screen of an iPad at the top of a height adjustable column (standing/sitting) and a mini Segway on the bottom.

One of my robot highlights was waiting in line for my ticket, shuffling forward and chatting to people in the queue just as I would do in real life—a totally unexpected highlight. I used the WASD keys to navigate.

I was slightly apprehensive about being able to connect with people 4.5 thousand miles away, but it worked really well and I made some new friends. Luckily I had the novelty factor in my favour so people wanted to meet ‘the robot.’ I walked around with Cathy and the introductions were very natural.

As an attendee with a ticket, I was able to mill about the lobby, then roll to my seat and engage my parking break, turn the iPad brightness down and sit and watch as a guest.

The challenges were slightly different to physically attending… I had to watch out for wifi dead spots in the theatre. I needed a chaperone to make sure no one accidentally knocked me over. And of course there was the time difference—the event finished at 4am my time. I also had to get used to the echo cancellation feature which meant that I had to be careful timing my comments with others or I wouldn’t be able to hear them. Of course, asking people to repeat something if the background noise was too loud was exactly the same as being physically present at the event.

I really enjoyed the experience (and would happily do robot guest appearances!). The TEDx talks were great. I’m looking forward to watching them again. And as a bonus, the robot nicely demonstrated Craig’s message about the way technology is expanding our opportunities for human connection in unexpected ways. Watch the TEDx video.

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