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Futurist Attends Educause Conference via ‘Doppelbot’

Has your budget for attending conferences been slashed again? Here’s an idea: Send a remote-controlled robot instead.

doublebot_bryan_eli2014_liananunziatoThat’s how Bryan Alexander, a futurist and education-technology consultant, attended the Educause Learning Initiative conference, in New Orleans this week. Without leaving his home, in Vermont, he maneuvered a slightly-gawky, two-wheel “telepresence robot”—essentially, an iPad mounted on a sort of miniature Segway—around the Riverside Hilton’s meeting rooms. He chatted with friends and acquaintances, peered at conference posters, and even posed for pictures. (That’s Mr. Alexander’s face on the screen at right, as he converses with another conferencegoer.)

In a pair of entertaining blog posts (here and here), Mr. Alexander reports on his adventures—or, rather, on the adventures of what he took to calling his “doppelbot.” Through a web interface, he could see what the iPad’s camera could see, as well as what its screen was displaying to others. He could direct the robot to go forward or back, or to turn, and he could even lower the iPad from shoulder height to table height.

The drawbacks, he says, were several. The iPad’s speakers aren’t loud enough—in a noisy hall, other people could hear him only by leaning in near the speakers. And as the conference’s Wi-Fi network got busier, the robot’s connection deteriorated “to jitters and ultimate stoppage.” And of course he had to depend on someone else to plug the robot in and boot it up.

Still, he says, he enjoyed the experience, for which he didn’t have to pack so much as a toothbrush, much less subject himself to airport security or airline surcharges: “I expected to feel more awkward in the doppelbot than I did. Instead, it had a very Second Life at its best feel to it: Simple movements usually just worked, while human interactions offered awkward moments due to lag or altered body-language expectations. I gradually felt present to a degree, holding a double awareness of that conference site with my faraway office.”

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