first caught the attention of Peter Hirst at the 2014 Internet of Things World Forum in Chicago. He watched with interest as Cisco demonstrated its mobile telepresence device, the Ava 500. In the demo, a person located in Germany used the device—equipped with a video screen, wheels, and a wireless connection—to attend the conference virtually. The German attendee connected to the device through his own computer, using special software to navigate it freely around the space while interacting with vendors and attendees through the display.
At the time, Hirst, an associate dean of executive education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, had been looking for ways to allow faculty and staff to work more effectively while traveling, and the potential of mobile telepresence to support that goal was intriguing. “That demonstration made quite an impact on me,” says Hirst. “But once we discovered how expensive it was, it wasn’t relevant to what we were doing.”
Not too long after, the Sloan School instituted a flexible working strategy for its staff—including a team member based in the U.K. who was struggling to work remotely. “I was trying to find a way for our remote colleague to integrate more fully into our work here, and telepresence robots came back to my mind,” Hirst says. A quick Google search led him to a simple device from Double Robotics. Unlike the Ava 500, which costs tens of thousands of dollars, the Double robot was much more affordable—approximately US$2,000, or about the price of a high-end laptop. Hirst ordered two of them.
The telepresence robots—essentially iPads mounted to rods on wheels—have become familiar sights among Hirst’s staff at the Sloan School’s exec ed department. With three now in use, they have proven surprisingly effective and easy to integrate into the day-to-day operations of the exec ed program.
“It’s very typical for us to have meetings where some people are in the room, some are dialed in on the telephone, some are projected on screens via video conference, and one or two others are ‘sitting’ at the table using the telepresence robots,” says Hirst. “It all seems to work.”
As business schools see their enrollments in online and blended programs increase, they are looking for ways to offer their remote students a more personalized and engaging experience. According to early adopters of the technology, telepresence could be a boon to online business programs—mobile telepresence, in particular, could offer a much more interactive, face-to-face experience for remote students, faculty, and speakers.
FREE TO ROAM
While traditional video conferencing and fixed telepresence technology restrict remote individuals to interacting with others via wall-mounted television screens, mobile telepresence allows individuals to roam the space much more freely. From their own laptops, tablets, or smartphones, users can maneuver the devices down halls and into classrooms, position themselves at tables with on-campus co-workers and classmates, and even go to lunch with their peers.
“With fixed telepresence, those who connect remotely via video conference have no control over where the display screen is looking—they might be looking at someone who isn’t talking. Their view is at the whim of whoever’s controlling the camera,” says Hirst. “Telepresence robots offer a very instinctive way for people to control which direction they’re looking and where they’re located in the room. It gives people a feeling of being in control over their own experiences. That’s something they don’t really get if they’re just dialing in through more traditional conference methods.”
PROS & CONS
Mobile telepresence robots used at MIT Sloan do not require a dedicated space, as fixed telepresence does, and users require very little training to use them. “If you’ve ever played a video game, you can operate the robot,” Hirst says. “It just takes a few minutes of steering around to get the hang of it.” But in initial experiments with mobile telepresence, the Sloan School identified five limitations of the technology:
Mobility. More expensive mobile telepresence models—such as Cisco’s Ava 500—can be programmed with a map of an entire facility, so that a remote user doesn’t have to drive it anywhere. “The user can say, ‘Take me to Peter’s office,’ and the device would be able to navigate that automatically,” says Hirst. But less expensive models, which include the Double and Suitable Tech’s Beam+ (see “In the Experimental Stages” on page 36), rely on the remote user to guide it.
The device’s mobility also can be limited by obstacles. For instance, users must be warned against accidentally sending the devices down staircases or taking them outside over rough terrain. In the case of stairs or trips outside the building, a staff member must transport the device to the desired location.
Battery life. Power management is always a concern with mobile telepresence—support staff must be diligent about keeping mobile telepresence devices charged in their docking stations and to be aware of the duration of each user’s event. “This device is essentially an iPad on a battery with localized wheels,” says Hirst. “You have to keep everything charged for a full day. When you’re taking one on the road, you have to make sure that you have a spare battery.”
Connectivity. Not surprisingly, mobile telepresence robots rely on wireless connectivity to operate. Most college campuses have strong wireless signals, but there can be dead spots. “When users of these devices have to use an elevator,” says Hirst, “it’s good for them to have a buddy with them because that wireless connection can be lost.”
“Telepresence robots allow users to interact with others in a more humanlike way and be more spontaneous in their movements.”
—Peter Hirst, MIT Sloan
Visual capability. Because they are limited by the zoom capability of the iPad, users of telepresence robots might not be able to enlarge the view enough to see a presentation clearly from across the room. The Sloan School addresses this problem by providing presentation materials to users in advance.
Cost. The cost of a mobile telepresence device can be an advantage or disadvantage, depending on a business school’s budget and objectives. The high price of more sophisticated telepresence devices such as Cisco’s Ava 500 is largely driven by their ability to operate semi-autonomously—a feature more suited to medical and military environments than business schools. The function and price point of a user-controlled Beam+ or Double device could be a better fit for higher education.
So far, these constraints have not been difficult to overcome at the Sloan School, says Hirst. He notes that the devices make up for their limitations by supporting a number of activities:
Remote work. The telepresence devices have proven valuable in supporting flexible work schedules for faculty and staff. “We use telepresence robots and other technologies, like video conferencing, to enable more effective teamwork and collaboration,” says Hirst. “The robots allow users to interact with others in a more humanlike way and be more spontaneous in their movements.”
Virtual travel. Hirst and his team have shipped the Doubles across the country to events so that faculty members could make presentations and attend conferences virtually, when they couldn’t otherwise make the trip. Staff simply coordinate with someone on-site to receive and set up the devices prior to the event and ship them back at the end. “We recently shipped a couple to a daylong workshop in Denver,” says Hirst. “Our people had a very productive experience at the workshop, one that was much less tiring than it would have been with traveling, courtesy of the robots.”
Accommodation of students with mobility challenges. Hirst says his department recently tested the use of a telepresence robot in the classroom with a single student. That individual, who uses a wheelchair, attended an exec ed program from California via the device. “He reported a very positive outcome,” says Hirst. “He would even go to the lunchroom with fellow students and talk with them as they ate. We were very encouraged by his report, and we’re planning to expand our use of mobile telepresence to provide access to people for whom getting physically to the program would be a significant challenge.”
The Sloan School has had a positive experience with mobile telepresence, but Hirst understands why other b-school administrators might hesitate to purchase the technology. They might be concerned, for instance, that the devices are sheer novelty or that the technology might be disruptive to other students who are attending a course in person. Hirst admits that those were concerns for his team as well. But he adds that any worry that faculty had was quickly dispelled during its pilot with the student from California.
“The Double provided some entertainment value for students at the beginning, because it was such a novelty,” says Hirst. “But they got over that quickly, and soon started treating the remote student as if he were actually there.”
Given the success of that pilot, Hirst now is considering whether or not to offer a mobile telepresence option to exec ed students who don’t face mobility challenges, but who might be too busy to travel. On that point, he is still “undecided,” he says. “We are concerned that if we provide a telepresence option to too many people, it might affect the experience of those who are attending the programs in person.”
That said, his advice for other schools that haven’t yet made the leap to mobile telepresence: Don’t be afraid of how faculty and staff might react to the robots. “We were a little nervous about how faculty would respond,” he says. “Yes, some users are a little self-conscious at first about using the devices. But we’ve had a very positive reaction. It’s absolutely worth trying these out.”
He also emphasizes that by incorporating mobile telepresence into business programs, business schools can expose faculty and students to next-generation technologies, such as robotics, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality. All three of these technologies could converge in ways that provide realistic experiences of remote locations—from an office on the other side of the world. Some scientists are even looking to the technology to one day provide people on Earth a way to experience the surface of Mars.
“These kinds of autonomous or semi-autonomous remote engagement technologies are quickly evolving,” says Hirst. “Just imagine a mobile robot with the ability to interact with its physical environment even more—even just to, say, get on an elevator and push the button for the floor the user wants.”
Such capabilities could generate “pretty interesting consequences” for higher education, he adds. The use of telepresence in education could not only increase access to business education, but also be a reasonable baby step to offering true-to-life, immersive virtual experiences across the board.
See a video of a mobile telepresence robot in action at MIT Sloan Executive Education at www.youtube.com/watch?v=culZoMzrgao.