This week Cisco had a presentation with AVA Robotics about using a robot that was partially controlled by a remote user to make the user feel as though they'd teleported to a remote site. With the likelihood that many of us will continue to work from home for the foreseeable future, our reliance on video conferencing will only increase. As a result, it has suddenly become essential to invest in and advance these tools to make them more useful.
While the use of robotics as a physical avatar for remote viewing isn't new, integrating the solution with an existing conferencing platform like Webex is, and the result appears to address the problem of feeling left out far more effectively.
Let's explore that this week.
Video Conferencing History
I've followed video conferencing since the mid-1960s when I first saw the AT&T video phone at Disneyland as a child. Fast forward to the late 1980s, I participated in research that intended to put video cameras on everyone's desk. The technology back then was very raw, but the employees didn't want to use it because they thought their boss was using the camera to spy on them. Given this study was done at Apple, they probably were right to be concerned.
Since then, we have had an attempt each decade to make video conferencing mainstream—and each attempt failed. This failure was because companies didn't force the use of the technology, and remote attendees felt understandably left out.
While a lot of the early problems like poor video quality, latency, and horrid user interfaces have been sorted over the years, three things remained: Strong policies that forced video conferencing use over travel, a lack of interoperability between platforms, and an inability to mingle like you would if you were physically there.
The first point of problem is being addressed by national policies preventing travel, which force video conferencing. The second issue the industry is still avoiding. However, there is an increasing number of hardware products that support multiple video conferencing platforms. The third difficulty is getting a lot of attention with things like the Holoportation booth. Another earlier attempt put a big screen TV in a door frame in a portrait configuration that people could walk up to and chat with. (Done right, it looks like the remote person is standing just inside the room through the door.)
The issue with both solutions is that while they are natural (it feels like the person is there), they aren't mobile, which means the user is pretty much stuck in the conference room or wherever the booth or unique doorway is. (By the way, on the doorway solution, I've often thought it would be cool to rig it with an actual door and then put the display on a video loop of a doorway in some other part of the world. It could become, in the winter, your door into summer. Or with this COVID-19 event, your entrance into someplace else you'd rather be.).
Cisco + AVA Robotics
As noted, using a robotic Avatar isn't new. Still, many of the earlier solutions used cheap robots and often iPads to create a relatively fragile and challenging solution that didn't integrate the conferencing software in use at the company. This means you'd tend to see retransmission of the video from a meeting—through the robot's cameras—rather than the natively streamed content going to a remote person without access to a robotic avatar.
With the integration, you should be able to see the presentation and speaker, as well as any other remote worker, while still being able to leave the room for a quick side conversation robotically. You could even go on a site tour (assuming there are no stairs—which is far more likely now that offices have to be ADA compliant). And their AVA Robot appears to be far more robust than many of the earlier efforts (though I still think it needs arms). It can even effectively raise to talk to a standing person or collapse down to talk eye-to-eye with a sitting person.
Wrapping Up: The Power Of Partnership
No one vendor can fully address the problems associated with current video conferencing solutions. However, the need for these solutions has never been higher, which is driving change. One of those changes that Cisco and AVA Robotics demonstrated is partnering to create more complete solutions. If this becomes a trend, I expect that by the end of the year, we'll have video conferring solutions that address most of the problems we currently have video conferencing.
Thanks to Cisco and AVA Robotics for getting us one big step closer so less of us have to get on planes during these troubled times.