Telepresence: The Promise (and the Overpromise)

Is telepresence just a fad, or can telepresence be a valuable tool in industries such as education and healthcare?

August 11, 2016 by Andreas Krebs

Finally somebody called it: we'll be using more robots to communicate over long distances in the future, not less.

According to technology intelligence research firm Tractica,  we'll be seeing a 50 percent increase in the use of telepresence by 2020. Forget travel, forget Skype: we'll be using robots to create a virtual presence for ourselves, even from oceans away.

Companies are busy preparing for our glorious telepresence future: Google's on it by patenting a screen equipped drone that projects a virtual version of oneself within the office. Other companies are finding unique applications for telepresence, including minimizing the impact of a stroke!

Young businesman in vr headset planning work in office

Telepresence is coming into its own. The use of technology to allow a user to manifest a presence over long distances has long been a dream for futurists, but Moore's Law has only now reached a point where telepresence can be practical, and not just a gimmick.

Telepresence has made the most inroads in the field of medicine, where telepresence robots have quickly gained a foothold in many hospitals and homes. Among many applications found for telepresence in the medical field, surgical robots, medical rehabilitation robots, and telemedicine systems that allow specialists to check in from long distances away.

The “TeleStroke” process uses videoconferencing and image-sharing technology to allow stroke specialists to diagnose and treat stroke patients. Beyond reaching patients at far-flung community hospitals, the technology serves as a force multiplier – allowing specialists to reach more patients in less time, and also cutting “door to needle” time by more than half.

Another area where telepresence shows great promise is in the field of distance education, where collaboration technologies can bridge great distances between teacher to students, or between the students themselves.

Teachers in the Philippines, for example, are using telepresence platforms in Korea to help children learn the English language.

Despite all this… why has telepresence not gained the breakthrough that many other game-changing technologies have?

For all its advances, telepresence still can't beat good old psychology. The “presence” part of the equation bumps into things we take for granted when we're actually physically present, among them social norms. The Boston Globe's Leon Neyfakh, for one, discovered this for himself when he visited a tech conference through a telepresence robot.

“Experts still don’t know exactly what is needed to make people feel physically present in a place where they are not, or how best to help them interact with people who are,” says Neyfakh, citing a study where “people who are telepresent feel 'violated' when people who are present-present move them around without their permission, or put their feet up on them as if they were furniture.”

This problem may be intractable: after all, technology simply can't replicate human presence no matter how hard it tried.

Maybe that's not the point.

Instead of aping face-to-face meetings or going back to email or PMs, telepresence may lead us to a new normal: with newly negotiated social norms for communicating via remote robot, a virtual presence may soon be just as valid as a truly physical presence.

It might be a change in the way we think – not in the way we build telepresence machines – that can lead us to the breakthrough we've all been waiting for.