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Popular Science Is Building The Telepresent Robotic Boss Of The Future

January 29, 2013 | Telepresence Options


To overcome the physical distance between our New York offices and our editor in chief--who lives and works on the West Coast--Popular Science is exploring the cutting edge of telepresence technologies.
The Digital Embodiment Of Editor In Chief Jacob Ward Big on "tele-" but not so much on "presence." Dan Nosowitz

Earth circa 1993 was a radically different place. In roughly two decades, technology has completely reorganized our lives, our workplaces, and our interpersonal interactions. We have more means and methods of communicating, of interacting, of collaborating and sharing information than we could have envisioned twenty years ago. It's easy to feel like there is no problem--especially where communication is concerned--that technology can't solve. At least until you run headlong into one that it can't.

Popular Science is a magazine about the future and the science and technology that will get us there, but right now PopSci has a technology problem. Our editor in chief, Jacob Ward, lives and works in San Francisco. The rest of us work out of PopSci's Park Avenue offices in New York City. But building magazines is nothing if not collaborative, and office culture is nothing if not interpersonal. So for Jake, collaborating with us across video chat is somewhat like watching a live concert streaming over the Internet; the sensory information coming across the fiber networks is real and true to real life, but not only is the experience not the same as actually being there, it's not even remotely close. Which has us wondering: Can technology ever shrink this distance? Could it even go beyond? Can technology create an experience that's better than actually being present?


We need ubiquity, something that is easily accessible to most everyone Ward needs to interact with. We need collaborative tools that allow users at both end to share ideas and interact with one another to create a shared experience beyond simple audio and video transmission. Where possible, effective telepresence requires some kind of humanizing element--something analogous to "breathing the same air," Ward says--that helps convey the idea of physical presence, non-verbal cues, and the like. And we need mobility. "We have meetings in front of a wall covered in printouts or in front of a whiteboard sometimes," Ward says. "I'd love to be able to go to wherever the meeting is taking place."

But more than anything, our solution needs to be simple and unobtrusive--something that makes office life easier rather than more complicated. "This needs to be as simple as someone walking into my office in New York, hitting a button, and me popping up wherever I am in the country," Ward says. Editor in chief on demand--that's the future we want, now.

"I've tried a few different solutions, including Skype, Facetime, and something called Fusebox, and I have reverted to Google Chat," Ward says. For the magazine that promises "The Future Now," that might not sound very futuristic, and it's not. Google Chat has been around for years, and it's somewhat restrictive in that it ties the users on both ends to their computer monitors. But it's also a window into the first pillar of effective telepresence. Ward says he's gone back to using Google's video chat and instant messaging system because everyone is already using Gmail and Google Chat. It's accessible, no downloads or hardware reconfigurations necessary. Google's products have enough ubiquity and reliability to make them convenient.

This is the jumping off place from which we've begun carving out a list of requirements for the telepresent editor in chief we hope to create in the very near future.

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