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Your alter ego on wheels

March 8, 2013 | Howard Lichtman

Story and Images by Angus Kidman / Lifehacker

Robotics: Remotely controlled telepresence robots let people be in two places at once. But they look a bit goofy, and raise security concerns

equipment, installed in dedicated meeting rooms, delivers startlingly vivid images and sounds from afar. It can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to equip each room, however, and in most offices many fruitful meetings happen informally, in people's offices or at the water-cooler. Now a new and radically different approach to videoconferencing is helping overcome both shortcomings. "Robotic telepresence", as the technology is known, allows people to move virtually through a distant building by remotely controlling a wheeled robot equipped with a camera, microphone, loudspeaker and screen displaying live video of its pilot's face.

Telepresence robots cannot match the audio-visual fidelity of a good, large-screen videoconferencing installation, with its carefully calibrated lighting, eye-lines and audio. But the robots cost much less and are more flexible. They give their pilots the freedom to converse with anybody at the remote location--rolling over to the desk of a colleague, say, or accompanying a busy boss on her way to a meeting--rather than limiting communication to a specific time in a special room. Proponents of the technology say that by placing a remotely controlled embodiment of yourself in another location you can nurture your contacts, increase your influence and assert your authority.

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