The Web has enabled a growing number of us to work remotely and even collaborate with one another from distant locations. While online meeting services like GoToMeeting, Fuze and WebEx are effective at letting us communicate with one another, they don't quite compare to the experience of actually being there.
What if you could go to the office without physically leaving your home? That's the idea behind telepresence robots, a few of which have become commercially available in the last year.
Most recently, a robot research lab called Willow Garage launched a company to start developing a new telepresence robot which puts more emphasis on the physical appearance of the person the machine is supposed to represent. Existing products like Anybots' Segway-style robot and a similar one offered by VGo include the person's likeness but only on a very small screen. Willow Garage's new company, called Suitable Technologies, aims to improve that by producing a robot with a much bigger screen on which to display the operator's face. It's expected to be on the market in 2012.
At about $15,000, these futuristic pseudo-colleagues don't come cheap, but we imagine the costs will come down in due time. Even with the current price tag, they may well be worth it for many companies, for whom telepresence robots may increase productivity and help keep other costs down.
By most accounts, these robotic representations of remote workers are pretty neat, but still a bit clumsy and not yet close to accurately mimicking the presence of a real person. As the technology and related interfaces improve, we could envision an office setting in which humans and human-controlled robots coexist and collaborate effectively.
What do you think? Could you work with a robot? Too distracting or totally awesome?