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Travel … or tele-robot? Participating in a climate change workshop by remote

By Charlie Wilson, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research

Invited to Future Earth’s Exponential Climate Action for Cities (X-CAC) workshop in Stockholm, I faced a dilemma common to many researchers working on climate change: travel, participate but add to CO2 emissions … or stay at home, miss out, but avoid contributing to climate change?

The X-CAC workshop was designed to advance thinking and planning for the role of cities and tech companies in rapid low-carbon transitions. It’s a topic at the heart of my own research, and the workshop promised an exciting roster of participants. Moreover, it built on workshops on disruptive low-carbon innovations I helped organise with Future Earth in London a year ago.

However, I’m based in the UK, and the X-CAC workshop was in Stockholm, Sweden. Hence the dilemma: a 2 hour flight each way, a 2 day train trip each way, or something else?

The world’s first video-linked interaction dates back to 1927 between the future US president, Herbert Hoover, in Washington DC, and the president of the communication and tech giant, Bell Labs, in New York. Fast forward almost 100 years to 2018, and video-linking into workshops, seminars, conferences and other events by remote has never been easier.

My own experiences of using Skype, web-conference, and other online platforms for remote participation is that they work well when you’re talking directly with a small number of people who all have good internet connections, are sitting near a microphone, and are somewhere with no background noise or distractions. This is almost never the case for workshops or conferences which encourage dynamic interaction, movement between spaces (including the coffee or lunch areas), and physical activities from post-it notes on wall collages to sketching out collaborative designs.

So when Future Earth offered me the possibility of participating in the X-CAC workshop by tele-robot, I jumped at the chance. By telepresence robot (or tele-robot), imagine a rolling cylinder attached to a long handle with a tablet screen and camera mounted on top. You log on via a web interface to take control of the tele-robot: moving around, altering the height of the screen and camera, zooming in or out, and even switching into night-vision mode! The camera shows the tele-robot’s surroundings, and the screen shows you (from your own computer’s camera).

After testing out the tele-robot beforehand with the workshop organisers (and getting all the Dalek impressions out of my system), I logged on and somewhat apprehensively joined the workshop.

Future Earth's Laurel Milliken interacting with participants through the robot.

The advantages of being a tele-robot were immediately apparent. Workshop participants were clustered in small groups throughout a large space, listening to speakers and looking at wall posters or projections. I could move up to a group, inch my way to the front, and zoom the camera in to read material being presented. Participants’ reactions which I could see ranged from curiosity and amused grins to nonchalance.

During the breaks, I could approach people – or be approached by people – for one-to-one conversations (and selfies!). The video and audio were both clear, and the tele-robot’s physical presence really seemed to help the interaction seem more real. Whether talking to people, listening to talks, reading wall collages, or just observing the dynamics in the workshop space, participating by tele-robot felt really immersive and involved … and as a result, more fun and engaging.

It was also fascinating to work out how tele-robots should behave as there are no established norms. Is it OK to roll up to people and initiative conversation? Is it OK to move the camera up or down to match the height of the person you’re talking to? Is it OK for people to pick you up, or is this an invasion of your personal space?

One thoughtful participant picked me up to move me down some steps between the coffee area and the main room. It felt very odd to lose control of my position and camera direction. Additionally, in the process, my microphone got accidentally knocked and switched itself off. I couldn’t hear anything for the next 10 minutes before the event host realised and came to my rescue.

Later on, having been chatting to quite a tall person, I rolled over to talk with someone much shorter. I instinctively lowered the screen and camera down to their level so I could see them face-on. But imagine if a tall person went down on bended knee to talk to someone shorter than them.

It was very fun physically exploring the space. The tele-robot could move quite quickly, and with responsive directional controls, it felt a bit like being in an augmented reality computer game. The funniest moment came as I ducked out of a discussion group to go and explore the spacious main foyer of the building where the workshop was held. A member of the discussion group came running after me as they thought I was lost and might have been looking for the toilets!

All these little examples point to what will be an emergent set of norms, practices and expectations should tele-robots become a more common feature of our professional lives, particularly for climate change researchers looking to substitute emissions-intensive flying for effective participation by remote.

The research institute I work for, the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, has pioneered a travel strategy which encourages reflection and self-awareness when travelling for work, recognising the different needs, opportunities and pressures facing researchers of different seniority. The strategy includes an app where we can log our travel and its emissions, and also self-assess the importance of each trip we make for our research and professional development. Distributed across seven universities in the UK, the Tyndall Centre actively encourages participation by remote in our seminar series, conferences, governing council meetings, and other events. But given the limitations of tele- and video-conferencing, there's been no real substitute for meeting face-to-face.

Roll on the tele-robots!