If you do not want to go to California yourself, go there as a robot!

I did not have a paper at this year’s CHI conference. I am not necessarily a big fan of the conference itself – it is just way too big and therefore a bit anonymous. However, for Saturday there was a very interesting workshop scheduled: Pervasive Play. However, it would have been a bit unreasonable to spend all the time and money to get to California just for this workshop. Leading up to the conference I was talking a bit to Elizabeth Bonsignore as they were planning on using my Mixed Reality Game Cards in one of the workshop activities.
Then, about a month before the workshop, she told me about the telepresence attendance option. It would allow me to attend the workshop – and be a robot for one day!

My application got accepted, and after some test drives earlier this week, I “beamed” into the workshop yesterday. Sitting on my couch in Nottingham I transported my consciousness to San Jose.

This is what I looked like:

It was actually a really great experience. The robot was a so-called Beam by Suitable Technologies. It basically looks like a Roomba with two sticks and a screen attached to it. But it worked really well!

The Beam has two cameras, one pointing forward, and one pointing downwards. The second makes navigating the Beam really easy. In the control interface you can move your mouse cursor towards where you want to drive, and the software displays blue lines showing the predicted path of the Beam. As soon as you press and hold the mouse button, the Beam starts driving!

Front camera, bottom camera, and my own camera. The blue lines show the predicted path of the Beam.
Front camera, bottom camera, and my own camera.

The maximum speed of the Beam is just a little bit slower than walking, but it can drive backwards and also rotate on the spot. Also useful is the ability to zoom the camera image, especially when looking at presentations. It also focuses the audio, so it makes it slightly easier to hear what people are saying.

Overall I was quite impressed with the quality of the video and the audio! And in general it was a much better experience than all those dreadful Skype video meetings I have had. Being in a robot really gives you a feeling of “being there”. I could drive up to people I wanted to chat too, drop in and out of conversations, and explore the venue at my own leisure.

There were about 10 total Beams at total at the conference, but because it was Saturday only about 3 of them were in use. This enabled me to “leave” my Beam in the conference room and “teleport” into another one at the coffee area! This saved me from having to drive all the way from one end of the venue to the other one which I did during our first break.

Overall I was extremely happy with the experience. If I get another chance of going to a conference as a robot, I will probably do it. Maybe in 5 years there will only be robots at CHI!

Thanks to everyone at the workshop who always took extra caution when interacting with their robot participant!

Saying goodbye to the human participants of the Pervasive Play workshop
Saying goodbye to the human participants of the Pervasive Play workshop

One thing I noticed was that it was really easy to drive up to people and talk with them, as almost everyone was curious what this robot was driving around them. During some of the breaks I had great fun chasing two adorable kids around the conference venue. First they were screaming a lot, and towards the end they got braver and even (weakly) kicked my robot.

Also, not to forget, the bathrooms were also usable by robots!

Being a Robot at CHI2016
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