This past weekend while attending an Xprize fundraiser in San Francisco I saw self-help guru Tony Robbins and Google co-founder Sergey Brin, but not in the traditional sense. Although neither of them could physically attend the event, both Tony and Sergey were strutting the room and chatting it up like the rest of us by controlling Willow Garage's awesome Texai telepresence robots. If you are like me, you have been somewhat skeptical of the whole telepresence robot idea. I mean, once we get over the novelty of the idea and the coolness factor of it all, do telepresence robots really have a place in our society beyond a niche role?
After witnessing Sergey and Tony in telepresence grandeur, consider me converted into a believer in the telepresence revolution. People at the event, myself included, were immediately attracted to the robots and loved talking to them. During the course of the evening, I spoke to individuals from Argentina, Washington DC, and Canada - all via telepresence. Telepresence robots are going to be an awesome addition to our technology fueled lives. Catch a glimpse of my conversation with Tony below:
Humans are social creatures, and the telepresence robots at the Xprize event latched on to this human quality in a way that surprised me. If Tony Robbins had simply video conferenced into the Xprize event via a hanging TV the experience simply would not have been the same. He wouldn't have been able to traverse the room to find (or evade!) various individuals. He would not have been able to turn away when he was done talking to you, nor would he be able to see someone or something that was "behind" him in the room.
At this point the Texai robot does not even have arms or hands to allow for a more robust human social interaction. Once they have appendages, I could see the future for these robots becoming even more compelling.
One of the fascinating aspects of telepresence robots is that they can become different people throughout the evening. There were three Texai robots at the Xprize event, and over the course of the evening each robot was embodied by several different interesting individuals from all over the world. Enjoy a video of Sergey Brin in full telepresence form below:
In some ways attending an event via telepresence robot might even be superior to physically attending. No need to dress up in fancy clothes! Safely hidden within your robot, now you can attend black tie events in the comfort of your boxers. Need to put the kids to sleep or answer the front door of your house while "attending" an event thousands of miles away? No problem! With the conditions setup just right, you could even attend multiple events simultaneously by taking over telepresence robots that you have reserved ahead of time. Will telepresence robots be available "for rent" at parties, conferences, and other events in the future? Sounds like an interesting business idea!
Maybe I am just caught up in the euphoria of the moment and telepresence robots aren't all they are cracked up to be. They can't traverse stairs very well, for example, and attending an event by telepresence certainly is not the same as truly being there. Still, I can't get away from the fact that telepresence robots are pretty neat. I could see them becoming a regular part of human social gatherings over the next decade. If so, chances are I will be inside one of them.