Work / Life Ecologies

Adventures in Telepresence Conferencing

Have you ever wanted to attend a conference that was right up your alley, but just couldn’t find a way to get there? Perhaps the flights were too expensive, and you or your employer didn’t feel it was worth the time and money to make the trip. You may have caring obligations where spending multiple days away from home just isn’t feasible. In either case, you would miss the event.

If you’re lucky, the conference may livestream or record the keynote presentations so you could view them online. If attendees are ‘live-tweeting’ at the conference, you might get some idea of what is happening by following the conference hashtag on Twitter. Viewing conferences from afar like this is increasingly possible, as conferences start to broadcast the event online and on social media.
But what if there was a way to ‘be there’, without travelling all that distance? What if you could have a physical presence at the conference, navigate around the venue, attend presentations, and interact with people – all remotely? Telepresence robots are a relatively recent technology that might allow us to do this.

Telepresence robots are wheel based devices equipped with a screen, camera and microphone that can be controlled remotely to move around a remotely located physical space – like a conference hall. Using an app on a smartphone or web-browser based interface, users can see and hear via the robot, and navigate around a space remotely.

SUPP researchers at RMIT University have attended several conferences via telepresence robots, as part of a project to understand how these devices might allow people to attend conferences and other similar events remotely, reducing their need for air travel. We are using participant observation to record our experiences of attending the conferences in this way, and comparing it to experiences of attending conferences in-person.

One early general finding is that the experience is ‘not as good as being there, but better than not being there’. At the conferences we have attended, we have had a ‘chaperone’ who would ensure that the robot was operating properly, and to make sure it didn’t run into any trouble.

The technology for telepresence is still developing, and there are various models ranging from about $1500AUD (our model) up to over $10,000AUD. More expensive models appear to have higher quality cameras, better microphones, more sophisticated controls, and live support for troubleshooting.

Some conferences are already offering attendees the option to attend remotely via telepresence robots, for a reduced conference fee. This allowed people who might have inadequate travel funding, visa restrictions, or other difficulties travelling, to experience the conference remotely and have a ‘presence’ at the event.

It will be interesting to see how these devices offer more opportunities to engage an interact with others remotely. Could this become a more accepted and normalised way of attending conferences in the future?



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