Telepresence technology has two main challenges for global companies to consider. The first is the cost and time investment to implement. The equipment can be expensive and there must be a fast, stable internet connection for the quality to be sufficient. It also takes time to learn and adopt new etiquettes when working with virtual colleagues. The second challenge is the security risk of having a remote-controlled robot roaming around your office or warehouse streaming information online. In this episode, we explore the downsides of using telepresence technology on remote teams.


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Original transcript

Welcome to the Collaboration Superpowers podcast. My name is Lisette and I’m interviewing people and companies doing great things remotely. Hello, everyone, and welcome to episode #135. Those of you who have listened to this podcast for a long time have heard me gush about telepresence, how much I love the Revolve Robotics Kubi, and the suitable technologies BeamPro, a drivable robot that you can drive with the arrow keys on your keyboard. It’s definitely something I’m excited about. You can hear all about it on episode number 48. Telepresence is basically a combination of technologies that gives you a presence somewhere than your actual location. So your smartphone and standard videoconferencing tools even face time. Those are considered telepresence.

Now the telepresence that I’m referring to in today’s podcast are the robots. And specifically, the Revolve Robotics Kubi and the Suitable Technologies BeamPro. A couple of weeks ago, I finished a blog post for a cutter consortium. And as part of the editing process, they asked me to include some of the downsides of using telepresence. So it wasn’t just a glowing review of all the great things that telepresence can do. So I did a little research and I looked into what are the downsides because it is a really good question. Of course, there are lots of upsides. And as with any technologies, there are also some downsides. So this episode is going to be dedicated to the downsides of using telepresence on your remote team. As much as it pains me to do it, we have to face reality and know what we’re dealing with.

First and foremost, with telepresence, you really need to have a fast and stable Internet connection. And it seems like a really simple thing to say. But so many people are still struggling with basic videoconferencing. Telepresence is one step above that because you’re using movement.

Now the second downside of telepresence is the cost of the equipment and the time that it takes to implement telepresence properly into an organization. The cost of equipment isn’t actually all that much. For one Kubi, it’s around $500, and for the suitable technologies BeamPro, it varies from they have a $2000 model and then they also have the $20,000 model. So depending on the size of the business and how many of these things you might need, definitely, cost can be a downside. But also remember that the costs are going down all the time. These are new technologies, and it always starts out a little bit more expensive.

Now the time that it takes to really engage people properly with using telepresence, I must say it does take some getting used to. But the tools are very, very easy to use. I mean the Kubi, you just rotated using the arrow keys on your keyboard. And with the BeamPro, you drive it using the arrow keys on your keyboard. It doesn’t get more complicated than that. It’s more a matter for the person who’s beaming in. They have to get used to it. And then there’s sort of an etiquette in a human-robot interaction that people have to get used to. For example, you can’t shake hands with people when you meet them. So what’s one thing that you could do? First pumping. That’s a lot more 2D, actually. So it seems a little bit [inaudible – 03:24]… or waving, of course. That might be a little bit more normal. But things like that. Those are the kind of things that in an office, when you first start using telepresence, little things like that start to come up and you realize, “Oh, okay, we have to do this slightly differently.” One of the biggest hurdles on that front though is that people really think that it’s hard to learn and it’s actually not that hard to learn. It’s just in people’s heads. It might take some getting used to, but it’s not like you have to learn how to program or anything. You simply have to learn how to use the arrow keys on your keyboard to maneuver your movement on the other end of wherever you are.

And just like with the adoption of any tool, you really have to need it before it will get adopted in the organization. So unless people have a need for something new, they’re going to just keep doing what they’ve been doing because everybody is busy and who has time to learn all the new tools? But when people need something, they will find a way. Now a very real downside and concern of telepresence that probably comes up the most is the security concerns. And it’s not just about making sure that the software has the right protocols, but we also have to consider that there is a remote-controlled robot that is streaming information to somebody. So just like with any videoconference, you have to be careful of what people can see and what the background is and how much information… Different companies have different security levels. So that’s definitely something that needs to be addressed. What kind of security protocols do the telepresence robots require? Now security protocol sounds really threatening and scary, but don’t let that drive you away from telepresence. It’s simply one of the factors that needs to be addressed. Something that larger organizations are really struggling right now is moving from having global tools to more split communications, and telepresence will definitely enhance that.

So back in the good, old days when I was working in a cubicle farm, everybody used all the same software. It was Microsoft office, and the IT department controlled it and installed it. And nobody really worked in the cloud. But we all used the same tools pretty much. So it was much easier for the IT department to manage everything.

Now we’re going into very split communications. People have multiple devices, tons of apps. And there are tons of tools being built every day to help bridge the distance. Adding telepresence to that list only makes the jobs of IT harder.

Now a more physical problem of using telepresence robots, especially the drivable robots, is there are certain places that they have trouble going. For example, elevators or escalators, stairs and definitely swimming pools. So if you need telepresence and your office is on multiple floors and you need to be able to access all of those floors, definitely, you need to be thinking about how you’re going to get the telepresence robot from one floor to the other. Or you may need multiple telepresence robots. That’s the way I’d go, of course.

So now just like there’s no way to shake somebody’s hand when you’re in a robot, it’s also very difficult for a person in a robot to raise their voice because generally, the volume… I mean you can do it a little bit but generally, the volume only goes to a certain level. Whereas if I were in a room and I really needed to talk, I can definitely raise my voice and let people hear me. But in a robot, that’s harder to do. And now that I think about it, maybe that is a feature rather than a downside. But okay, we’ll leave it here for now.

Okay, so as much as it has pained me to give all the down sides of telepresence, those were the things that I came up with. I’d be very curious to hear other downsides if people have used it or concerned about something that I may have missed here. All my contact information is at collaborationsuperpowers.com. And if you want to hear the upsides and all the great things about telepresence, then go back to episode number 48. Where I discuss why I hardly welcome our robot potential. Thanks for listening, everyone. I hope this was some food for thought. If you want to hear more stories about remote teams doing great things, if you want to get more tips for how to work together better remotely, then sign up for the Collaboration Superpowers newsletter. Every other week, we’ll send you all the best stuff about working remotely. A big thanks to the producer of this podcast, Nick Jaworski. He’s the one that makes us sound so pro. You can hire him to make you a star at podcastmonster.com.

And another big thanks to Alfred Boland, the dazzling graphic designer for collaboration superpowers. You can hire him to make you look cool at bolanden.nl. And for all the best stuff and resources on remote working, visit collaborationsuperpowers.com. All right, everybody, that’s it for the week. Until next time, give telepresence a try and be powerful.


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