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Meet your future co-workers: Robot avatars

The Marriott’s GoThere Virtual Meetings are part of

The Marriott’s GoThere Virtual Meetings are part of AT&T’s Telepresence Solution, using Cisco TelePresence. Telepresence systems feature high-definition screens. Credit: Courtesy of Marriott

On the one hand, you'll still have to go to work in the future.

On the other hand, even if you don't leave Long Island to work, you're more likely than ever to be closely collaborating and talking with co-workers miles or continents away.

Just as formerly exotic technologies such as high-speed Internet access, cell phones and satellite-guided mapping systems have become mundane, things that now seem fanciful could some day be a part of our everyday work lives.

Like robot avatars, for example.

A robot avatar is an extension of yourself that you control from someplace else - home, an office across town or on the other side of the world - with a computer keyboard. You'd use it to talk to people in an office or a warehouse, give factory tours or check on business without having to be there in person.

Some of the first ones went on sale just last month by Anybots, for $15,000 a bot. They look fanciful and friendly - like an upside-down helmet mounted on a broomstick planted in half of a toy car. It's got two "eyes," one of which houses a laser guidance system to help it navigate while the other is home to its camera. A videoscreen on the front lets people see who's controlling it.

Founder Trevor Blackwell said that after the novelty wears off, people react naturally with the bot and talk to it as if the person inhabiting it is really there. And that's the key, he said - better communication.

"Conversations aren't always in someone's cubicle or in a conference room," Blackwell said. "You can follow them [co-workers] into the cubicle, follow them down to lunch. You can join conversations where people would naturally have a conversation."

Blackwell said it's been eye-opening how using the prototype makes it easier to work with people at Anybots' headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

"I do it much more often than phoning in," he said. Unlike using a phone, he can see who's too busy to talk. "I don't feel like I'm barging in on people."

Even the company's receptionist uses it, he said. She'll log in to a bot when visitors are expected, or she sits in on meetings when she's not in the office.


Work from anywhere

As they become common, Blackwell said, bots will allow people to work in many places at once. A consultant with a particular skill, for example, could visit several clients in a day all over the planet as long as they had robot avatars.

A lower-tech solution already in use is telepresence,

a kind of supersized videoconferencing. Instead of an easily ignored screen in a conference room, telepresence systems put high-definition screens focusing on individual participants at the table itself. People who aren't physically in the room have a greater presence because they'll be rendered life-size with greater focus, said Howard Lichtbaum, president and founding of the Human Productivity Lab, a telepresence consulting firm in Virginia.

"If you get the human factors right, people will use it and use it more often" than videoconferencing systems, he said. And if they use it more, a company with a tele-presence system can save money on planes, rental cars, hotels and related expenses, he said. Rental telepresence studios could make the technology affordable to small companies that might not otherwise dream of using it, he said.

"The utility of what you can do and who you can talk to is going up dramatically," Lichtbaum said.

And such systems are invaluable when things like public health disasters or Icelandic volcanoes make travel impossible, he said.

Creative uses

Some companies have found novel uses for the systems already, he said. Clothing companies can use them as virtual fitting rooms to look at designs before they're manufactured. At least one teaching hospital uses it to teach surgical techniques to students without having them be in the operating room.

Not all working at a distance will require video hookups or robot avatars, however. CrowdFlower and similar companies are making do with telephones and computers.

CrowdFlower, an online staffing company based in San Francisco, allows companies to "crowdsource" work that can be done at home, like translation, photo editing or even customer service. Lukas Brewald, founder and chief executive of CrowdFlower, said his company maintains quality control - sometimes by having other crowdsourced workers doublecheck work.

The system allows companies to get access to affordable labor quickly, and it lets people work in small bursts from home, he said.

CrowdFlower has connected 500,000 workers with employers in the past three years, he said. "We create incredible chains that span the world," Brewald said.

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