VROOM: Giving body to telepresence

One of my life missions is to connect people, and I’ve been pursuing this mission through research projects that bring remote friends, couples, conference attendees, emergency workers, and search and rescue volunteers together. So when I joined the Future of Work theme at Microsoft Research Cambridge for a summer internship in 2019, I was excited. The theme is led by Abigail Sellen, Deputy Director of the lab and a pioneer in video-mediated communication, and I’d be supervised by Senior Researcher Sean Rintel, who leads the Socially Intelligent Meetings workstream.

Of course, the irony wasn’t lost on me that I had to travel to the United Kingdom from my home in Vancouver, Canada, to work on video collaboration. This also meant being over 4,600 miles and an eight-hour time difference away from my girlfriend, Sunny Zhang, a Microsoft Software Development Engineer in Vancouver.

We stayed in touch through daily video chats and messaging and even took advantage of a more advanced way of connecting: telepresence robots. Effectively video chat on wheels, a telepresence robot allows a remote individual to drive around another place and see what’s going on from the robot’s camera while people in the space can see the remote individual on the robot’s screen.

The Cambridge lab had a Suitable Technologies Beam robot, so late one afternoon, during the first week of my internship, Sunny “beamed in” for a tour. Rather than me carrying Sunny around on my phone or laptop, she “walked” with me; the robot gave her physical and mobile autonomy. She even made a special friend—a mini Wall-E robot sitting on my colleague Martin Grayson’s desk. Martin made Wall-E dance, and in response, Sunny rotated her robot body to dance, cementing their robot friendship.

We took a selfie as a memento of our time there together. But Sunny was still trapped and flattened on the robot’s monitor, much like video chat on a laptop or phone. And from her perspective, I was trapped and flattened on her screen. There was a wall between us. I wanted it to feel more like she was there with me and also wanted her to feel more like she was present.

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