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When you want to attend an international conference—in the face of travel bans, high airfares, and potential tussles with flight crews—the solution is obvious: become a robot.

Oh, and wear a pink tutu.

That’s what Susanne Boll—professor for media informatics and multimedia systems at the University of Oldenburg, Germany—did when she wanted to attend a conference in Denver, Colorado. Boll used a BeamPro telepresence robot to participate in the convention remotely.

Normally these assemblies are high-minded, professional gatherings. The pink tutu robot was decidedly out of place, earning a variety of reactions from participants: some were amused and fascinated, others found it easy to ignore.

For its part, the robot felt connected, alone, and stuck, according to its master.

Read how the full account of the robot in the pink tutu here

In her article “Multimedia at CHI: Telepresence at Work for Remote Conference Participation,” Boll relates the good, the bad, and the ugly of using the BeamPro robot in a conference environment. CHI is the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

“As a member of the multimedia community, I was curious about the telepresence experience and wanted to see first-hand how multimedia is at work in the field of telepresence,” wrote Boll.

robot in pink tutu at tech conference

Professor Susanne Boll’s telepresence experience on the morning of trial: (a) The top window shows the student volunteer who greeted her, and below that is a camera facing downward to show what was on the floor when driving. The lower right screen shows what others saw on the BeamPro’s large display.

The Good

The BeamPro robot can be personalized.

“Before the conference, we were invited to send a scarf or something to personalize our robot. I chose a pink tutu—part of a carnival costume for my daughter—and gave it to some team members who were traveling to CHI. It turns out that the tutu was a good choice for getting attention, being easily recognized, and starting small talk,” said Boll.

Interaction with participants was relatively comfortable.

“For the most part, I felt connected, and it worked pretty well. The height of the camera and the display of my robot felt good for a conference in which most of the face-to-face conversation was done while standing,” Boll added.

The cost was affordable.

“The actual price for the day was the same as the early-bird one day registration for the conference. Given the technical effort for the installation of the telepresence robots and all the effort by the student volunteers, the price was probably rather cheap,” wrote Boll.

The Bad

It was difficult to find her way around.

“Because the telepresence was set up in a large conference center, there was no indoor map service provided with the robot system, and the different corridors looked almost identical,” said Boll.

Upon finding her room, it was difficult to get around in it.

“As a robot, I always felt as though I were in the way, and the downward-pointing camera confirmed this. There were lots of feet and bags in my way, which people had to move to give me space,” wrote Boll.

The audio left a lot to be desired.

“The room had a microphone and speakers, but it was demanding to listen to the talk and understand everything that was said. In the future, a plug-in mechanism might help,” Boll suggested.

The Ugly

robot to robot chat at tech conference

Robot-to-robot communication: (a) The limited connection during Boll’s conversation with writer Emily Dreyfuss of Wired, and (b) the two of them talking to a third robot. The person standing in the middle was the “ear” of the third person, there to capture high-quality audio for a podcast that Wired was producing.

She felt disregarded.

“There were also times when I felt like a second-class participant. In one room, a student volunteer moved me slightly so that another participant could see better,” said Boll.

She felt stuck.

“When I was driving through the hallways during breaks, when it was very crowded, many people walked in my way to quickly bypass me instead of letting me pass,” Boll added.

Elevators were a problem.

“I had to ask someone to accompany me on my way up or down so I could reconnect and return to “life,’” wrote Boll.

So, what was Boll’s final impression?

“For me, this experience was extremely exciting, and it gave me the opportunity to not only attend the conference but also learn a great deal about the state of the art in telepresence.”

 

Related research on telepresence technology in the Computer Society digital library: