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Will 'Telepresence' Replace Telecommuting?

Interested in telecommuting? Sorry, but that's so 20th Century. Your co-workers of the future could be "telepresencing" instead.

What is "telepresencing," you ask? It's being able to work from home while still having a presence in the office. No, I'm not talking about CNN's experimental phase with hologram technology during the 2008 presidential election. Telepresence is a type of "remote presence" where a TV screen on wheels wanders the hallways at work. The non-techie in me thinks of it as a Segway with a TV screen featuring your home-based co-worker waving back at you. As one story explains:
While they may be very robot-like in appearance, telepresence (or "remote presence") machines are less robots than they are video conferencing interfaces on wheels. And they may just be the future of the modern workplace.

At least two Silicon Valley companies are vying for the telepresence lead in this country: Anybots and Willow Garage. Both companies have developed similar telepresence models (they've both opted for the hat racks on wheels approach—see video below). Anybots and Willow Garage are also primarily marketing their technology for white-collar telecommuting, highlighting their machine's ability to give remote employees more "presence" in an office environment.

On the plus side, you wouldn't have to worry as much about your co-worker eating smelly food for lunch or arguing on the phone with his girlfriend in the next cubicle. And yes, this technology could make remote employees feel more connected to work and less "out of sight, out of mind," which is nice.

I have to wonder, however, if telepresence might end up being a productivity drain. Will remote employees lose productivity because they'll spend valuable work time fielding interruptions from their co-workers as their "video conferencing interfaces on wheels" meander down the hallways at work? How often will remote employees have to appear live on screen? Only for important meetings? For a few hours a week? All day long? What if an employee is in a hurry, rounds a corner and knocks Dave-On-Wheels onto the floor, resulting in a lost connection and a repair bill? Are there emerging legal issues here, too? Employers will have to think about the pros and cons.

Here's a product demonstration for your viewing pleasure. I'll be very interested to see if this idea takes off.



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