Can't Attend a Conference? This Telepresence Bot Will Get You In

The People's Bot wants to make telepresence available to more than just the rich and famous.

|
Apr 29 2014, 3:20pm
Image: Flickr/J. Nathan Mathias

Right now at the CHI conference in Toronto, one guest is likely turning a few heads (though unable to turn his or her own). The unusual attendee looks a bit like a Segway with an iPad as a face; a face that will continually change throughout the conference. 

Meet the People’s Bot, the friendly telepresence robot that gets you into events you couldn’t otherwise attend. That’s right: a robot that, rather than stealing your job, actually wants to help you do it better.

The People’s Bot was developed by MIT grad students Chelsea Barabas and Nathan Matias as a way of bringing telepresence to a wider audience. Barabas told me the project was inspired by seeing Edward Snowden deliver a TED talk via a telepresence bot.

“Nathan and I were talking about that and how, while that is quite remarkable, this technology of using these telepresence robots in these public forums is still very much being used to extend the reach and the presence of the hyper-famous, well-known, and rich,” she said. 

One look at promotional materials for these kind of bots makes the target audience obvious (perhaps with the exception of a Japanese firm’s robo-rental scheme). Barabas said that the robot used for the People’s Bot project—a Double Robotics model—sells for $2500, not including the iPad.

They wanted to democratise the idea of telepresence a little, and extend its benefits to more people. How it technically works is quite simple: the bot user signs in and their face appears on the screen, so they can chat to other guests face to face while potentially sitting on the other side of the world. The advantage over more common technologies like Skype is that they can also control the bot—they “walk” using arrow keys, so can approach different people as they please, rather than waiting for a conversation partner to accept a call.

The developers are running three different schemes to allow people to use the bot at CHI: scholarships for students to have an hour at a time, sessions for media (especially those who will publish under a creative commons license so as to expand access even further), and slots available to bid for on eBay. Barabas admits that the eBay sales weren’t so successful this time, and they’re still working on how they might organise a funding model.

The general idea is that the bot allows people who aren’t in the area or can’t afford a ticket to go to the event, at least for a little while. But while that sounds very appealing for would-be attendees—a ticket for all days of CHI this year cost up to a wince-inducing $1400—I asked if conference organisers wouldn’t consider this kind of bot scheme as unfairly gaming the system.

Barabas said they were unsure how the idea would be received, but that CHI had been quite open to the idea. “Another thing we’re really needing to think about is respecting the policies of conferences in terms of recording events in terms of things that are closed,” she said. They’ve written up a user license that outlines what people are allowed to do during their face time. 

The main application of the People’s Bot is to enable informal learning opportunities, and while they’re starting with conferences, it could be expanded to other events and networking opportunities. “Once we leave university or secondary school, we don’t get a lot of opportunities for formalised learning to happen, but there are a lot of really rich learning opportunities where people come together and share ideas,” said Barabas. 

The point is to maximise inclusivity at events that require live interaction—otherwise, you could just livestream the goings-on. I wondered if at some point we’d end up with no-one physically attending events and just an army of bots bashing wheels, but Barabas said she didn’t think telepresence would ever replace human meetings. “I use Skype and telepresence technology on a daily basis and it’s still not the same as face-to-face interaction,” she said. It’s really intended for people who can’t be at a particular event.

“At the same time it’s also not necessarily less valuable than a face-to-face event,” she continued. For one, it’s a pretty good ice-breaker to walk into a room as a robot, and would no doubt make breaking into those closed circles of people who already know each other a little less awkward—or at least so ridiculous as to be impossible to ignore.