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Using a Beam Pro telepresence robot

02 May

Slate published a very human article about the Beam Pro telepresence robot today. I’ve seen other reviews that looked at the technology, or criticized it as a tablet on a stick, but Seth Stevenson also talks about the embodied experience and the way that others came to interact with him in robot form.  He talks about how the robot gives the user agency.  He’s not reliant on someone propping up an iPad or turning the webcam so he can see; he can turn and move himself. However, that motion is not his own — it’s silent enough that he surprises colleagues, it sometimes has connectivity issues, and it is limited in expression:

I also found it hard to express nonverbal cues using the robot’s body. When I’m in the office and I stop at someone’s desk to chat, I’m able to indicate when it’s time for the conversation to wrap up so I can walk away. This may involve subtle movements—turning the body slightly, or backing up half a step—that suggest an imminent departure. But these sorts of subtleties are impossible to convey when operating the Beam. Any motion the robot makes is a choice by the user to press a button, and thus cannot be passed off as subconscious body language. The Beam is blunt, and socially inept.

The article also has a short video clip from Stevenson’s day using the Beam.  I did wonder a little about how the robot was being anthromophized. With a cost of $16,000, this is an executive/professional-level gadget.  Yet when his co-workers described how they began to feel about the Beam, it wasn’t how many CEOs would like to be perceived:

The words “comical” and “doddering” were used to describe the Beam’s movements as it scooted about, and rotated on its wheels to face different people in discussion circles. “At some point I humanized the robot,” says one colleague, “and began to see it as kind of a silly poor thing that needed help getting around and navigating. It kind of felt like a pet.” Another Slatester found the robot “goofy” in an endearing way, and liked that it was “so vulnerable, like an adorable giraffe learning to walk.” 

Maybe it’s just been the CEOs I’ve worked with, but I never would have described any of them as cute baby giraffes. When posture and body language are so important, especially in power ranking, I have my doubts about this particular robotic application.

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