At any given meeting at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s business school, it’s become standard to have a few telecommuters dial in through a conference line, and one or two come in as robots.
Essentially, these robots, made by Double Robotics, are iPad stands on wheels that enable remote workers to log in from wherever they are, take control of the robot, and experience the environment through the iPad’s camera. Remote workers controlling the robots can move forward, backward, left, and right to wander around the room and make small talk with colleagues, just as if they were there in person. It’s not uncommon that two robots have meetings with one another if both workers are remote that day. Additionally, workers can adjust the height of their iPad to alter their vantage point and, in turn, change their perspective around the room. Much more real than the standard live video chat where you’re just a face in the room, the robots allow remote workers to actually take up physical space through their robot.
“This all adds to the experience of being there, much more so than any of the other sort of more traditional technological approaches that we’ve all been using,” says Peter Hirst, executive director of the executive education arm of MIT’s Sloan School of Management.
Hirst brought the robots to MIT about a year ago when “two things came together,” he says, that forced him to investigate ways to improve the quality of work for his team. The first happened when construction forced his team to move to an office three-quarters of a mile away from Sloan’s main building. The second was more of a gradual build-up of interest and desire from employees to cut down on time commuting. Hirst wanted to allow his team more flexibility, but was also aware that remote workers are often at a disadvantage for future promotional opportunities due to their lack of visibility in the office.
“[Teams] benefit from having spontaneity, from being together, and being able to sort of just bounce ideas off each other,” explains Hirst. “How would that aspect of our creative productivity be affected? We had a lot of conversations about that.”
Additionally, Hirst examined–and reconstructed, if necessary–each position on his team to make sure its design allowed everyone the same opportunity to take advantage of work-from-home arrangements in place.
When the robots arrived, similar to any big change, their arrival came with some adjustments. There were times when people assumed that remote workers were forced to use robots because they’re disabled, which led to some awkward conversations. Other times, people would pick up the robots while remote workers are logged into one, which also causes awkward tensions, says Hirst.
“People have a tendency to want to help, and they sort of pick up the robot to move it somewhere, which is a very strange experience if you’re the person driving it,” he explains. “It almost feels like you’re being assaulted.”
Another interactive technology Hirst’s team uses in business meetings and virtual classrooms involves a three-dimensional virtual space where assigned virtual avatars can sit and stand around a conference room.
In this digital space, you can walk your avatar up to another person’s avatar, and as you get closer, the other person’s voice gets louder. In the same way, as you walk away, their voice gets quieter. If you turn your head, you can hear people around you more in your left or right ear.
“We found that that creates a really interesting–very much like the robots–sense of being somewhere in a way that is much more engaging than just being on a conference call or even a video call,” says Hirst.
The experience can feel so real that when Hirst invited one of the deans to use the program close to its inception, he received an email 20 minutes later that said: “Wow, this is really fantastic. I’m really glad we’re doing this, but can you do something to stop these people standing so close to me? I don’t feel very comfortable. They’re invading my space.”
“For me, that was really fantastic because that was really a testament to how much you transferred your sense of physical being into the experience,” recalls Hirst.
Eventually, Hirst wants to add more intelligent robots and technology to the mix, especially as telecommuting becomes increasingly more common. In the coming years, Hirst hopes to include robots that can return to their charging stations (called “Robot Parking” at MIT) on their own when they run out of juice. He also wishes to incorporate robots that can interact more physically with the environment, like pushing a button or opening a door. Lastly, a robot that can move across more challenging terrain, like a staircase, is definitely on Hirst’s wish list.
“Wouldn’t that be great?” he asks.