So our first telepresence robot arrived in the office late last week. It started out interesting then became an experience none of us will forget.
Our robot looks like a weird iPad mounted on a segway, sort of like a stick with wheels that should look precarious but through the magic of software actually drives with a remarkable smooth and almost statuesque elegance.
Until it hits a bump, or a desk. Or the street gutter. (Yes, that happened.)
It is probably not surprising some of the geeks took it out cruising for girls on Sydney’s busy main drag, George Street, after the Friday night office drinks.
Meanwhile back in the office the giggling data scientists, UX designers and software developers (guys and girls) sat back watching and more importantly actually joined in remotely via the inbuilt camera and sound system.
One enthusiastic specialist also pimped my ride using fluorescent yellow gaffer tape and a sound booster speaker to amp up the impact.
The unexpected impact.
The crowd’s reaction both in and out of the office frankly blew up. As Freelancer’s lead growth hacker Willix Halim said: “It went viral, dude”.
On the street, pedestrians and drivers alike stopped and took photos and tweeted like crazy. Most were surprised and happy. All were taken with the novelty.
Then something else happened.
The novelty changed to a conversation, people started forming their own opinions on this new beast and talked to others around them.
What is the social norm for being chatted up by a telepresence robot? Would you turn your back on a real person? Because this is a real person – they are just in another room, building, or country across the world.
Since that initial experience we have seen new uses for “Wally” (the team’s nickname for what they have now abbreviated to as a ‘bot’).
If a person walks up to you in the street or the office, you would normally acknowledge them and say hello.
Do you do that with a robot?
The answer is yes, sort of. Initially people felt comfortable ignoring it if they were busy and someone from our overseas office “walked” up to their desk silently, waiting for attention. Our company is growing rapidly so there are lots of newbies around the world. Perhaps they were just virtually lost or on a self-guided induction tour.
And then this happened.
But in a matter of a day or two people started using the robot differently in the work place.
Normal non-tech staff and visitors alike took the time to actually look closely at the screen and find out who was ‘on’. Introducing themselves if they didn’t know them, asking if they could help them find their way around. Just like a real presence.
A new social norm was developing before our very eyes.
People from other offices (and lazy ones from distance ends of the same office) started attending meetings through the robot. We took photos. Now it is becoming a regular event. Normalised, if you will.
There were even genuine ice-breaking (and semi-lame) conversations like, “How is the weather in Vancouver Felix? Pete has your old desk here in Sydney now.”
Just like the real thing, only free from reality.
Pete Cooper is Regional Director at Freelancer.com (ASX:FLN) the world’s largest crowdsourcing and freelancing marketplace for business services like design, apps, translation and data entry with 13.7m people in 30 languages across 200 countries and 700 categories of work.
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