Robots Make Videoconferencing Better–It’s Science!

“Looking at the data, it seems the more appropriate question to ask is not whether robots are effective videoconferencing tools, but rather, what type of robot is best suited for videoconferencing?”

Telepresence robots have been getting a lot of press lately. You know the ones. They look like a tricked out vacuum cleaner with an iPad attached, and they’re rolling off assembly lines into businesses, hospitals, schools and even homes. Quite soon, you may be able to go to a meeting, have a stop and chat in the hallway or check in on a loved one without even leaving your chair. Seems like a pretty sweet deal, right?

Well, people aren’t so easily convinced, and they are asking a lot of questions. Are these robots practical? What are the real benefits of robotic telepresence over standard videoconferencing? And most importantly, do they have the potential to replace conventional telepresence systems?

As it turns out, our good friend Science has already looked into it, and the answers are not quite what you would expect.

In 2012, the Stanford University Center For Design and Research conducted a study investigating the relationship between robotics and videoconferencing. Their goal, to compare the value of interaction between participants using standard videoconferencing equipment with those using a robotic system that simulated remote “social cues” during the interaction.

For their study, Stanford used a basic robot featuring a remote person’s face on a screen that could pivot like a human neck.

They discovered that combining a video feed of the remote participant with a physical robotic presence that mimicked certain gestures–such as looking down at an object, or turning to face an individual while speaking–had a positive impact on the interaction. Specifically, remote participants were perceived as being more personable, more actively involved in the conversation and more equal to their peers.

Read the full study

The findings are not surprising, given the importance of non-verbal communication in everyday human interaction. Whether we are dating, interviewing for a job or meeting someone for business, subtle cues such as gestures, posture, and body orientation help convey our intentions, express emotions and create understanding where words alone cannot.

Looking at the data, it seems the more appropriate question to ask is not whether robots are effective videoconferencing tools, but rather, what type of robot is best suited for videoconferencing? Robots aren’t the competition for conventional telepresence, they are its natural evolution.

We can keep making flat screens larger, and increase screen resolution. We can improve the sound quality, add blazing internet connection speeds and design sealed, insulated rooms with special lighting. But all of these things are finite; they can only be augmented to a point. The robots of today are the first generation of devices that could bring more depth and humanity to videoconferencing.

And they need not be complex, or expensive.

“Tears in the rain”. Exploring the complications of human emotion in artificial intelligence. From the 1982 cult classic Blade Runner

We are still a long way off from cost effective robots that can communicate the subtle nuances of human emotion, but the Stanford Center for Design and Research has demonstrated that simple robots can be used to effectively enhance a remote collaboration experience.  There is plenty of room to grow, and robots are here to stay–paving the way to better videoconferencing.

Where do you think telepresence is headed? If you have thoughts/opinions on the future of remote collaboration, we would love to hear them! Feel free to leave a comment below or give Revolve Robotics a shout out on one of our social media channels.

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Revolve Robotics is developing KUBI, a simple, intuitive tablet telepresence robot that takes engagement to a whole new level during videoconferencing.

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