Are Self-Steering Robots the Future of Business Meetings?

Telepresence via an iRobot device
Telepresence via an iRobot device

If there’s one topic that’s guaranteed to stir up opinion, it’s the ‘future office‘. What will the office look like in 25 years time? Can we really stamp out the commute? Are the days of physical office space numbered? And 101 other tantalising questions that keep everyone guessing. If only crystal balls actually worked.

The great thing about all these unanswered questions is that it opens the door to some quite fantastic innovations – and the business centre industry is right at the heart of it. For instance Regus’ self-driving car concept, which is designed to double up as a meeting and business space, is a bold forward-thinking idea that adds a new dimension to the mobile working phenomenon.

And where front-of-house customer service is required, in a few years we might see more digital receptionists like ‘Zoe’, an intuitive ‘talking head’ that has the potential to interact with empathy and a startlingly personable manner.

Telepresence

Another element that’s getting plenty of attention lately is the humble business meeting. Currently, workspace operators and software providers are focusing on improving the way in which meeting spaces are booked. It’s simple – more meeting bookings and more footfall = more business.

But what about the people who can’t attend meetings in your business centre, perhaps because they have prior engagements or because they’re based thousands of miles away? How can you monetize that?

One answer is to utilise the concept of ‘telepresence’.

We’re familiar with video conferencing. ‘Telepresence’ is based on the idea that users can communicate virtually while feeling immersed in their surroundings. The technology has the potential to allow remote meeting attendees to dial-in and see every other member of the meeting on screens, as if they were in the same room.

‘Physical’ presence via robot

There are numerous concepts that play on the enormous collaborative potential of telepresence. One of them is iRobot’s ‘Ava 500’, a self-steering five-foot robot equipped with a video conference ‘face’ that allows users to join meetings remotely and move around the workspace, as if they were there in person.

Working with Cisco, iRobot developed the Ava 500 to give enhanced freedom of movement, a ‘physical’ presence, and to achieve a degree of personal collaboration within a dispersed workforce. Watch how this BBC reporter carries out a remote interview using one of iRobot’s creations.

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A little creepy? Perhaps. What would you think if you saw the face of your boss (who’s several thousand miles away), perched on top of a five-foot robot, rolling steadily along the corridor to find you?

Like all things, it would take some getting used to – but the idea behind it could drive huge opportunities. Given the explosive growth of mobile and flexible working methods, which is triggering an increase in remote workers and outsourcing, these technologies are complementing a market that’s increasingly geared towards dispersed working trends.

There will always be a need for physical workplaces, but telepresence and futuristic concepts like the Ava 500 allow the two worlds to come together in a far more harmonious and collaborative way.

That’s a positive sign for business centres and workspaces. Can you see yourself upgrading to something like the Ava 500 in years to come? Right now it seems like sci-fi – but once upon a time, so did handheld computers and touchscreen phones. Who knows, in a couple of decades, self-driving cars and video-conferences via robot might be as normal as booking a meeting room.

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