Apropos of this week’s interesting research links, I’ll tell you a little story.
Last summer I got the luck of the draw and was given a free hour to inhabit a telepresence bot at Camp Alphaville, the FT’s annual summer event about tech and finance. The chance came courtesy of Alphaville’s Izabella Kaminska
and French telepresence bot maker Awabot
. On the (very hot, exceedingly humid) day I was to be in Manchester, while Camp Alphaville was held in London. At the appointed hour, friends at FutureEverything loaned me a wifi connection and an empty conference room in which to slip into my botsuit and set about remote-rambling (“I need to be a bot for an hour, can I borrow a quiet room?”). Natalie was on hand to witness/recoil in horror at what transpired over the next 60 minutes.
The first trick in being a bot is figuring not just what but where you are, with your head inside the equivalent of a digital paper bag. Complete absence of peripheral vision, effective loss of stereo hearing and no sense of local movement and vibration make it tough to feel where you are. A kind assistant held up a map for me to get a quick look at, and like any good modern explorer I took a quick pic on my phone to have in front of me as I drove/walked through this first-person schmoozer.
Somewhat ironically, my free hour coincided with transhumanist Istvan Zoltan’s talk about becoming one with the cyborg, so I made a jerky beeline for the salon he was holding court in. After all, what could be more useful in a talk about uploading your mind to a computer than having someone nearby stuck inside one? It also made for a fairly epic troll, in FT terms.
In summary, here’s what I discovered in the ensuing experience (warning, limited sample):
* It’s easy to be VERY LOUD and potentially disruptive when you speak from a bot, as you have no direct sense of the sound of your voice. This is mildly funny in a self-serious environment.
*I found myself becoming surprisingly extroverted, and caring less about what I said than if I was physically present (see next item). I felt much the same as when I wore a large character suit in a theme park for a summer job. You can do things from inside the fake body you can’t do outside. Also, people like to take your picture. A lot.
*Men (well, British men) steered well shy of my bot-self, while most of the people who approached in a friendly fashion were women. I suspect this differs based on the culture you’re in at the time. I’d be interested to try this again in a range of situations and understand more about the dynamic.
*Average folks, such as the ones working behind the coffee stand on the day, were very keen to chat and engage and had a good time interacting. The stuffier sorts actively (sometimes frantically, comically) avoided interaction.
*Curiosity about where I was physically, and how far away I was beaming in from was constant. “Where are you?” not “Who are you?” was the opening line,
*It IS possible to headbutt another bot with sufficient driving skill. Particularly if they just stand stationary in the middle of a walkway and stare at you. This bodes well for the future (see next item). Sorry man, you just stood there.
*Video game skills, particularly those picked up in various dungeons and space stations, came in very handy in quickly adjusting to movement. I’m sure my bot-body looked odd hugging the walls while moving at top speed. Again, out of physical context, I was acting based on one set of behavioral conditioning (gaming) while those around me exhibited glide-y, socially non-committal conference locomotion.
Overall, I’d be keen to try it again, and try different situations. Obviously, those whose experiences are mainly in dull meeting rooms and corporate offices will have mileage that varies. In a conference setting, with lumpy temporary exhibition carpeting, plenty of dark corners, and a sample of technophiles on hand, things may be a little different. Still, inside the botsuit, I felt like I was learning something about the near future that I haven’t felt when trying VR, in its current incarnation as a relatively stationary, non-social experience.
So, Awabot or other botmakers—hit me up. Have embodied cognition, will teletravel.