Testing My New Robot Body

A week at the IEEE Spectrum offices through the cameras of a telepresence robot

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Transcript of Video

Erico Guizzo: Early this year, I showed up to work with a new body. This robotic version of myself is a QB telepresence robot. It allowed me to go the office without actually leaving my house.

I borrowed this robot from a company in California called Anybots, which sells each unit for US $15 000. Several other companies are selling telepresence robots, and they're being touted as the future of work.

My QB arrived in New York in a huge plastic box, and it came with a human companion: Anybots engineer Erin Rapacki. Her job was to help set up the robot.

Erin Rapaki: When you receive your robot, the robot will be packed away. It will be about three feet tall.

It's not exactly plug and play: Rapacki had to load batteries on the robot and configure its computer so it could work on our network. 

Erin Rapacki: "All right, signing into Skype."

Now it was my turn to take control. From my home in Brooklyn, I connected to the robot and rolled into the hall to find my coworkers.

The QB robot looks a bit like a floor lamp, but my colleagues seemed to like it. Well, maybe not everyone.

Phil Ross: "I know you think you've got a stronger processor than me…"

Learning to drive was very easy. I used the arrow keys on your keyboard to steer, just like a video game.

The QB rolls on a self-balancing base, and it has two cameras on the head. One camera faces forward, while the second faces down so you can see obstacles on the floor.

I managed to pilot the robot to the conference room to attend several meetings. It was really an improvement over trying to listen to a group of people using a speakerphone. I could hear better, and when I talked, people looked at the robot, so I felt like they were paying attention to me.

But my favorite interactions were the informal ones, when I just went to see my coworkers at their offices or when I ran into them in the corridors.

Nancy Hantman: "What are you having at home, electronic circuits?"
Erico Guizzo: "Um, just some coffee."

Now, being a robot is not a perfect existence. The little video screen on the robot's head wasn't working. Instead of showing video of my face, it could only show a static image. The office didn't have good Wi-Fi coverage, and when the Wi-Fi was slow, the video would be garbled. A couple times I actually got disconnected from the robot. It turns out that my robot needed its own human assistant.

But I mostly enjoyed my experience, and I can see why companies that have many offices and employees might want these robots. They won't replace other videoconference systems, and they won't replace most travel anytime soon. But I think these robots will get better and cheaper, and they will become a common sight. Everyone will get used to them. Well, almost everyone.

Phil Ross: "Well, I think you're just yellow!"

For IEEE Spectrum, I'm Erico Guizzo.

To Probe Further

For more about the test-drive of the QB telepresence robot, read the accompanying article, “When My Avatar Went to Work” and view the Telepresence Special Report.