Be everywhere, the Ubiatar claim, is something seemingly already offered by many technological products.
The base technologies for telepresence have been analyzed in another of our posts: [What is telepresence?]:
In this article we will look at what is already on the market, what are the pros and cons of these products and when they are best suited to solve each specific problem.
Let’s start with the basics: mail, email, phone and online chats.
These are the classics, and there are times when they are perfect solutions to classic problems.
Like listening to an old rock and roll vinyl, sending a mail envelope (or an email message), making a phone call or starting an online text chat can quickly solve a lot of different problems.
Sometimes it is useless to search for a fancy tech solution when just talking or writing to somebody is enough. The pros are the ease of use, the fact that the interface is simple and well-known by everybody, the fact that there is usually nothing to download or install and so on.
In all those cases when by just talking with somebody would be enough, just go for it. The option to send images and files with them just makes those solutions the answer to many problems in office, in a factory, and even with your loved ones.
In other cases, if you need realtime interaction, video imagery, live actions or any kind of more advanced functions, you have to switch to something better.
The first category of available products could be defined as ‘ONE TO MANY, NO REALTIME‘ and delivers video as a recorded performance, stored into a repository, seen by as many people as possible:
The main problem is that these are not realtime technologies: video can be stored and then watched in the future by a lot of people, but they will only be able to interact through comments and other ‘offline’ means.
YouTube is the most famous platform for this, and you can use it for free to store and offer your videos to the public. No interaction, not realtime (you record the video, upload it and THEN it could be watched) and only some texts could be added to the video content.
Facebook live is the equivalent of Youtube, offered into the facebook social network.
It is ‘almost’ realtime, since your ‘friends’ could watch the video while you are recording it; YouTube videos cannot.
It has the same problems of any video sharing platform, with some bonuses. The first one is the integration wth the platform; you can reach all your ‘friends’ and the ‘fans’ of your social page, while Skype or Youtube have just a list of contacts. Video are stored and stay as blog posts, so they feel more ‘natural’ and ‘easy’ for the growing number of facebook users.
It is not really interactive, since you can only answer live to comments from your ‘friends’ while you are recording and broadcasting the video, but the time sequence of comments and your video is played out in the same way in the future, so that the user experience is that of a product still ‘alive’ even if watched in another moment.
Periscope is a live broadcast service integrated into Twitter; your videos are more ‘realtime’ since your public can watch while you are recording it and then they are kept on the platform for one day, before being erased.
People can write messages that are shown directly on the video stream (while facebook live comments are shown on the regular text feed on one side of the page) and heart icons could be sent to express approval of the content.
Periscope is seen more as a micro-broadcasting TV station, while facebook live is a more intimate and ‘bunch of friend’ product.
All these products are best suited for a one-to-may service, like courses or public presentations, since they deliver an experience that feels mostly one-directional, from you to your public. Some back interaction is possible, but the ‘speaker’ seems really far away and ‘teacher-like’.
The second category of available products could be defined as ‘REALTIME, NO CONTROL‘ and delivers video as a live performance, without any control on the remote environment:
Videochats are the natural evolution of phone calls, and a good option when you want to see your grandma in her old town
Skype is the main example, but there are a lot of simple or more complex videochat and videoconference applications that you can download on your computer and/or your smartphone to talk to somebody while looking her in her eyes. Most of theme are also free.
If you just need (or would like) to see the person you are talking to, or even a small office table with a bunch of people, using a free Skype session is the best option. The pros are that is easy, well-known, free and on average of sufficient quality. You can also send files while chatting.
There are a few issues you should consider, however:
first of all, these products are free and this is a problem with professional usage. The mere fact that you are using a publicly available free product is often demeaning. If you are a serious company, it could seem cheap to use free products offered to the general public. You should show your logo and a company-specific log-in experience; with many videochat products this is not an option.
The point of view is usually fixed: you cannot move the camera to freely explore on the other side. If you want to see something else, you have to ask and wait for your peers to move the webcam or the laptop and accept the nausea arising from random camera movements.
Another problem is that there are no options for interaction: you can see and be seen, but you cannot ‘touch’ or ‘point at’ anything on the other side. If you have to let people know how to ‘act’ on an element that is on the other side, you have to explain it with your words; just imagine how to let people know which button to press over a complex control panel: “the third one on the second row… no, starting from the top, no, NOT THAT! That is the auto-destruct!”.
facebook live, as we have already seen, is a kind of hybrid; a little realtime like Skype, a little recorded as YouTube. The same branding problems fro professional applications apply.
Other videoconference systems are more or less the same, with a more ‘professional’ outfit and the same problems of little control on the remote environment. Some systems are customizable with your company logo and some offer a limited control on the remote camera, that usually cannot change its position.
All these products are best suited for a one-to-one or group-to-group chat service, like family or business meetings in static situations. Some very limited interactions are sometimes possible, but the effect is like being tied to a chair.
The third category of available products could be defined as ‘CONTROL, NO FREEDOM‘ and delivers a videochat service over a remote robot that can be moved around:
The best representative of this category is the Beam pro system:
These robots can be moved around pressing the arrow keys on the keyboard and the monitors show your person to the other people. It is like Skype on wheels, making it possible to chat and explore indoor areas.
After some hours of work you have to move back the robot to the charge station where it will dock almost automatically if within a distance of more or less one foot.
These products are hugely successful since they offer the best telepresence experience today for the general public. They are cute, easy to use and very effective.
There are some disadvantages, too: they are expensive, around 10/16000 dollars each, so normally are rented for a monthly rate.
The main problem is that these robots can only move on flat, smooth surfaces. Their usual environments are office spaces or very clean factory floors. They cannot use elevators, ride escalators or go over an uneven terrain. In a standard factory floor, probably this robots would get stuck on any kind of debris. For the same reason, these robots cannot leave any building and go outside in private or public spaces.
The question of the legal responsibility adds to the movement problem: even if a robot like this does not get stuck on an uneven terrain, if you drive it on a public road and cause any kind of accident, whose responsibility is it? Are you responsible, piloting it from miles away and with a very limited ‘situation awareness’? Or is it responsibility of the manager of the remote location that allows you to move it outdoors? And if the limits of the allowed area were not defined well enough? And if it could be the local biker’s fault? Or you inadvertently kill a dog that just wanted to play? A legal nightmare.
In Palo Alto there is the main showroom of the company (very stylish), where some of these robots (controlled by remote sellers) stay on the boardwalk waiting for prospecting customers, but even they are forbidden from going out on the streets for the legal problems that we outlined before.
Also, in many other cities of the world, robots like these would be stolen or vandalized by people, without any hope of self-defence.
The last problem is that of the lack of arms and hands. Since this is a moving videoconference system, it lacks any option for remote manipulation or activation of elements. You cannot open a door, so you would be stuck in any closed room and would be unable to exit. Also, a robot like these cannot ‘act’ on any device or object, limiting the options for meaningful interaction or industrial applications.
The last category of available products could be defined as ‘CONTROL & FREEDOM, WITH COMPLEXITY‘ and delivers high-end telepresence:
These teleoperated rovers are effective and allow humans to explore the depths of the seas, radioactive areas and even space. In this field you can find the famous ‘drones’ that usually can fly and attack remote enemies while you are comfortably seated into an air-conditioned base just north of Las Vegas. The problem is that these are extremely expensive machines, really difficult to operate, that require extensive training and sometimes more than one human operator. Not something that the average businessman or fashion-seeking lady could dream of using from their home/office.
And, as the ultimate evolution of telepresence, we like to think that Ubiatar is the closest thing to being physically somewhere else
(our claim being “be everywhere“):
to have another human being as your Avatar in another place has a lot of advantages and could be also counterintuitive; a kind of ‘back to the future’ experience.
While a lot of big companies spend millions to create ultra-sophisticated robots to mimic the human body and capabilities, we think that there already are MILLIONS of fellow humans willing to help us overcome our physical limitations.
By offering a fair payment, we can have any number of incredibly sophisticated Avatars, the best billions of years of evolution can offer, more than ready and willing to work with us for a fair and honest job opportunity.
Instead of dumb robots, that need to be controlled every small step of the way, we can have Avatars that can understand high-level directions and autonomously navigate any environment, ride vehicles, climb on escalators, take elevators, even fly if we need to feel like a superhero.
We can have Avatars with arms and hands, that can take, manipulate, activate and even repair any element, any device, always with high-level direction, since they have the extremely advanced ability to use human hands to do the job.
With the Ubiatar API you can personalize the platform, show your logo and a company-specific log-in experience; with many videochat products this is not an option.
You can take pictures like your Avatar’s phone is your own, so that it is really a personal experience.
Human Avatars can recharge without the need for us to drive them back to any docking station, they can avoid obstacles and dangers autonomously and can even warn us if we do not notice something in the remote environment. Any legal responsibility is theirs, since they are under no obligation to follow all of our directions.
The Ubiatar technology overcomes all the problems of the products on the market and can offer the best telepresence experience, short of being physically there.
On the other hand, if you just need some of the benefits simpler products can offer, you could not use Ubiatar.
Or you could use it, just to give a honest job opportunity to other people; it is up to you.
Like in our manifesto: “making mankind better and each individual a better human”