Friday, October 4, 2013

Hold On, the Robot Wants to Say Something

Today was a work from home day, as I had to pick up my 5th grader after a week of Science camp.  I'm in the final couple of weeks on a project, and we have daily bug triage meetings to get the release out the door.  I IM'd my project manager asking whether I should dial in to a conference bridge or have him just call my cell.  "Why don't you use AVA?" he asked.

AVA is one of two robots at my company, one on each floor, that are dedicated to facilitating interactions with remote workers and the in the office staff.  We've had them for a couple of months, and they are a bit of a novelty, an iPad scooting on top of a miniature Segway.  You drive them around with a browser or an iPhone app, navigating with your thumb or cursor keys.  You think you're panning a screen from left to right, and completely forget you are driving a robot. Still, I was a little shy of them. One day when I was having laptop issues and was weary of reading documentation on a loaner, I started driving the AVA on my floor, forgetting about the possibility of feedback, until everyone heard me thundering out of the speakers, "I'm I'm I'm trying trying trying to to to turn turn this this off" accompanied by a high pitch hum.  Which earned a look or two, and the comment, "I'm trying to get some work done."  OK, best to leave them alone.  Still, it was fun to see mechanical ghosts amble off to conference rooms.  We're fond of them, sort of like mascots.

But the thing is, when you are using one, once you wheel your way into a meeting, you forget it's there.  It's just a nice wide screen of what's going on. Does your analyst agree with you? Is your fellow developer comfortable taking on a ticket? Is the project manager feeling like things are on track?  You really can't get that from a phone call.  And the person on the phone gets forgotten, in a way that a robot does not. You have a presence in the room. Five minutes into the meeting, it was completely natural for my teammates to look towards me when I was talking, to nod with me.  A lot of communication is establishing synchronicity of tone and gestures, filling in the gaps, taking the right moment to jump in.  It's a lot easier to do that when you see the people you're talking with.

A little background... AVA is our own name (with a nod to EVE from Wall-E), short for "Ambulatory Velirian Avatar".  Anyone who has read my code, which tends to feature method names longer than the methods they name, knows who to blame for that.  The product is actually called a "Double", from Double Robotics.  And while they are awfully handy, they can get into trouble...

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