A what? A Telepresence Robot. It comes from the Permanent Future Lab at Seats2meet in Utrecht, was developed by Double Robotics, and answers to the name Double. I piloted Double for the first time two weeks ago in Leuven (Belgium) during the kick-off of the course Appreciative Inquiry. Me from behind my Macbook Pro in IJsselstein, my fellow students at the University in Leuven. In the middle on a rolling iPad, my virtual me listening to an interesting lecture by Rene Bouwen.
The real thing
What do you mean ‘virtual’? I had the feeling that I was really part of the group. When someone said something, I could turn toward that person and during our dialogue in the midst of a collection of lively conversations we move could aside a little so as to better understand each other. Just as you would in reality. By moving the arrow up and down on my Mac’s keyboard, the Double came to life in Leuven and slowly, but surely, moved to the other side of the classroom. I moved myself to the other side of the classroom. What a blast of fresh air!
I haven’t done an appreciative inquiry into how this was experienced by my fellow students yet, but I plan to. For me, the experience was phenomenal. That brings me to why I joined the class from home, and not in Leuven where my classmates were. Because of a physical disability I use an electric wheelchair and need to be assisted at different moments during the day. Like when I get up in the morning. Rising early is an assault on my body, and while I am becoming more skilled at traveling on public transportation, it remains a challenge. Not so much because of the delays, but because so often a bus isn’t wheelchair accessible, or like that time in Brussels when the train ramp was so steep and wobbly that it was a miracle I got to the bottom alive. But not only that, in a wheelchair you’re also pretty much invisible. The masses in the stations generally don’t see me as I sit under their line of vision. You can imagine the tension and waste of energy all of this causes. Not all bad, and there’s nowhere I’d rather be than in the middle of a busy life, but sometimes you make other choices. Like that Thursday in Leuven.
In retrospect, moving via the Double felt more like I was in motion than I’ve ever felt in the electric wheelchair that I’ve used for the last 28 years (I’m 32 now). Compared to my wheelchair, the Double takes up mostly vertical space and attracts considerably less attention than its very present 6-wheel counterpart. In my daily life I am keenly aware of the support I use. I get quite a few reactions to it. From open-minded children of course, but also from protective adults. In Leuven, more than anything else I had the feeling of self-presence. Of course I do often and quickly turn people’s attention to what is a little different about me to what we have in common. And the wheelchair gives me the freedom to get around with others. But the Double – after a little bit of getting used to it – brought me a new naturalness in contact. But for the record: I am speaking for myself, and from my own frame of reference.
If we had started our work with yellow post-its, I would have walked along the clusters to analyze them. Impossible with a laptop with only a Skype connection, and easier than with my boxy electric wheelchair. I can get closer, and with the push of a button make a photo. With my iPhone that same photo would be crooked due to that spastic reflex of mine, or the iPhone would end up jolted to the floor. Nice for my service dog Stevie, who otherwise might not have very much to do all day.
Skype in second place
Due to train disruptions at NS, I recently had to resort to Skype to give a short presentation. If a Telepresence Robot had been on location, I would have felt present. Now I didn’t. Sorry Microsoft, but from now on my beloved Skype will always be in second place. Double also proved to be more stable than Skype – in terms of connection as well as image and sound quality.
At the end of the kick-off in Leuven, everyone was invited to briefly explain what appeals to them about Appreciative Inquiry, what application possibilities they see for it and why he or she is to be appreciated. “Who Am I to Appreciate?” I was asked to begin, the iPad’s battery almost drained. The Double was parked at the whiteboard and I asked if people could hear me. Yes, was the answer. I always feel a healthy tension when I’m in front of a group. I felt like I was in front of the group then. The usual tension was there. When I noticed that, I knew: ‘something special is happening here.’
Can this completely take the place of live contact? No, of course not. To name just a few of its limitations: I couldn’t shake my discussion partner’s hand, couldn’t give an encouraging pat on the back. I couldn’t see the whole group at one time. And not insignificant: I had to pass on the dinner, something that in my experience works like an invaluable social glue. And while the Double’s pedestal was raring to go, the iPad’s battery was empty. A conference day starting at 9 am would be impossible due to the limited battery life. And yes, I still had to call in assistance, after hours of intensive effort. And to be honest, a virtual toast just isn’t the same as the real thing.
Scenarios for the future
But Thursday night I lay wide awake thinking about exciting scenarios for the future anyway. Because: “Telepresence comes pretty damn close to reality.” What could the possibilities of telepresence mean for my work in and with people and groups? As a group facilitator I work daily with organizations – groups of people plus extra dynamics – helping them to change the way they think. Walking around to monitor the process remains a challenge. I travel constantly because until now I’ve felt that ensuring the quality of group processes requires me to do so. Skype is insufficient. With Telepresence I have the feeling that there are stages in group work in which this other presence would measure up to the job.
What could Telepresence mean for my work as a speaker who aims to shake people awake? Seasoned speakers regularly move across the stage as they tell their story. I often stay in one place since my wheelchair communicates something very different than the body language of my walking colleague who easily bends forward or shifts his or weight. At least that’s how it feels to me. It feels unnatural. That’s why I consult with a theater maker about alternative communication styles that can go beyond the mental. Telepresence still isn’t non-verbal communication, but I see myself more readily moving the robot around than I would my wheelchair. Does this mean that my wheelchair stays in one place on stage and that I always speak without using gestures? No, absolutely not. But it feels different.
And what will this mean for the way I do acquisition? As you’ve probably noticed, I’m now applying Appreciative Inquiry to myself. I have the sense that the Telepresence Robot is going to radically change the way I do business. I already envision a Double I can give to people I work with regularly.
A final thought before I close with a wish and some requests for help. The current government hopes to create an extra 125,000 jobs for people with a so-called occupational disability. A mighty challenge. Due to mutual misunderstandings, prejudices, excessive caution and exclusion. But also due to practical considerations. If every company had an in-house Telepresence Robot — either acquired as an individual accommodation by the Benefits Office or provided by a municipality to an employee or independent contractor – wouldn’t that help shift the balance on this issue? Since Thursday I’ve become a believer that it would. Unions and employers, business network MVO Nederland, De Normaalste Zaak, Dutch reintegration companies: This is a golden opportunity! Feeling skeptical? Make an appointment to visit the Permanent Future Lab. Let me give you a demonstration!
Dream: Telepresence everywhere
I hope this article contributes toward making Telepresence widely available. Just as you can rent an ‘OV-fiets‘ bicycle at nearly every train station, it should be possible to participate long-distance wherever something is happening. I really believe this is possible. And that’s why I’ve made a map where everyone in the Netherlands can indicate where a robot is and if it’s located at a place that can be used by the public. (Like Seats2meet and other brooding places for innovation). I invite you to help me fill in this map. You don’t need to log in! Meanwhile, I plan to encourage the parties I named above, my clients and others in every way I can think of to join me in making this dream reality. Will you help?