Waiting to Socialize in VR? Try a Telepresence Bot

Who needs to visit a virtual world when you can virtually transmit yourself into a real place?

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Jan 6 2016, 4:00pm

Screenshot of the author controlling the Double 2 in front of a mirror with David Cann

There's already been a lot of chatter about the promise of virtual reality in 2016. But the real potential of VR, as Motherboard's Nicholas Deleon pointed out, will come when it goes beyond gaming and into more mainstream life—when you can go to work or social events via VR—and that's something we'll have to wait a bit longer for. Meanwhile, an existing technology offers something of a stepping stone between IRL gatherings and fully virtual trips: telepresence bots.

Yes, they look like Segways with screens, but bear with me: For me at least, the prospect of beaming my presence into someone else's physical reality is more attractive right now than strapping on a pair of VR goggles to converse with another avatar while trying not to feel seasick. Who needs to visit a virtual world when you can virtually transmit yourself into a real place?

Telepresence robot maker Double Robotics launched its latest model, Double 2, on Wednesday, with the aim of making commuting-via-bot a more standard feature of office life. Double Robotics CEO David Cann said in a phone call that it's meant for people who work remotely. "You use this, not really as a replacement for something like Slack, but in addition to it," he said. It's meant for more "face-to-face" meetings—he gave the example of joining in an office birthday celebration.

The Double 2 rolling over a cable with increased stability. Image: Double Robotics

The new version is still basically an iPad on a scooter but it's got better stability to traverse rough terrain, can go 80 percent faster at 1.6 miles per hour when in "power drive" mode, and has an optional add-on camera kit that increases the telecommuting driver's field of vision.

Telepresence bots aren't exactly the jetpacks we were promised, but they do help you get around. I spoke to Cann through the bot after an initial Skype conversation and was surprised by the difference between the two experiences. Being able to turn to see people just by using the arrow keys, and "walk" around with them, made for a much more immersive experience than I'd expected.

And one main advantage of the bot over alternative virtual communication options such as current conference call tools or, perhaps in the future, Oculus Rift-enabled get-togethers, is that the user can stay logged in and just be there to contribute to discussions as they come up, or go hang around the water cooler, rather than sticking to a fixed meeting time.

Cann doesn't think telepresence bots fill the same need as a fully virtual meeting, because it only really works if most of your discussion buddies are in the same place (otherwise you'd presumably just have a bunch of telepresence bots awkwardly rolling around an empty space). "Honestly, the Double is not for that," he said. But, he added, "Most companies in the world are going to have physical locations for a long time to come."

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