Robots were my Mecca as a child. The Jetsons had it made with their maid; Rosie kept the household going. I mean, it sure as heck wasn’t George. And Jane was always shopping. Maybe Jane’s mall addiction was more the producer’s fault than Jane’s, but she still wasn’t the family anchor Rosie proved to be. I even thought my mom should be a robot. (Just teasing, Mom! You’re way cooler that Rosie.)
Picture your Mecca. I’m right, aren’t I? You’ve got robots there too. Maybe yours is less “Rosie” and more “Johnny 5,” but can’t we all agree that robots hit a nerdy sweet spot? Throw in a few grapes, Egyptians, close friends, family, and you’ve got yourself a regular shangri-la.
Some lucky homes already have robots, but I’m still waiting for mine. I dream of Roombas. I love the idea of never vacuuming again. But household chores are just a start. Robots might help us stay connected. The super smart people over at Willow Garage are doing just that. Willow Garage developed an open-source robot for telecommuters called the Texas Alpha. Aaron Saenz describes the Texas Alphas as “…robots that allow workers to telecommute and command a dynamic representative thousands of miles away.”
Texas Alphas are Skype-enabled computers on fancy wheels. The Texas Alphas aren’t necessarily “pretty,” but they’ve got this appealing “scarecrow” aesthetic that makes me want to give it one of my old flannel shirts to wear around the office. Texas Alpha’s “head” is a flat screen monitor and webcam. The monitor displays the person operating Texas Alpha, and the webcam allows the operator to see Texas Alpha’s surroundings. And all of that happens through Skype.
Dallas Goecker made the first Texas Alpha out of scraps. Goecker created the robot as a way to maintain his physical presence at Willow Garage. Since then, Willow Garage has built a small test fleet of twenty-five Texas Alphas. Goecker observes that communication with coworkers as a teleworker is almost always purpose-driven. There’s very little small talk, and casual conversation just doesn’t happen. In contrast, when Goecker drives down the hall inside his Texas Alpha, he physically crosses paths with people. And that’s when he and his colleagues experience something very similar to Goecker actually being there: they stop and chat.
Here’s a video of Goecker explaining the whole thing through a Texas Alpha:
Saenz points out that the first model had some weaknesses, but now the Texas Alpha can balance on two wheels like a Segway (I love the footage of Willow Garage people bullying the TA in the hall), move at high speeds, and dock itself for charging every night — which is nice, because I was worried the Roomba was going to show it up with its docking skills.
Telecommuting means you’re not there. Goecker is trying to change that somewhat. Texas Alphas reinstate your physical presence in the office, and it seems to be a functional substitute for being “there.” There’s just one thing… I’m not sure how non-robot-loving folk would interact with Texas Alpha. How would that feel to be hurrying down the hall to a meeting when you bump in to Mr. SkypeOnaStick? My guess is self-conscious. And that’s the big adoption hurdle to video conferences too. But now, not only would you worry about how you look onscreen, but you would have to wonder what Janet across the hall is thinking while you’re talking to a robot. Could this help bridge the distance between your dispersed workforce?
I like Texas Alpha. I’d like to put one in your home office so we could chat. Please find a place for my docking station.