Robots and video conferencing: The rise of the avatars?

Are robots the next big thing in video conferencing? It's definitely an industry trend as more companies tout these robots as a new means of mobile collaboration.

A video conferencing robot, or “avatar,” looks like a tricked-out Segway with a video conferencing screen on top.

But is this a practical solution for businesses? Certainly, the device allows for mobility. No longer does a video conference have to be stationary. The avatar allows for remote collaboration anywhere from a cubical to a hallway.

The avatar allows for freedom of movement. It can be programmed so that obstacles are avoided as it moves about. A remote user thousands of miles away can scan their long-distance surroundings and engage in conversations.

Video robots are not supposed to replace in-person interaction or even conventional videoconferencing. Instead, they're supposed to be the next best thing to being in the office or workplace.

Will this be a lucrative or sustainable business model? Most likely not in the foreseeable future. First, the price entry point pretty much rules out small businesses as prospects. Second, it could be seen more as a distraction than a convenience.

Video conferencing is completely portable and mobile already. You can have high-definition multiparty collaborative video conferences right from your smart phone or tablet. You don't need a robot to enjoy the benefits of locating and working with a person via video conference. Your entire universe of contacts is already arguably in your pocket or purse – and you in theirs.

Finally, there is a bit of Big Brother in this approach to video collaboration. Rather than being a tool to get real work done, these robot avatars seem best for wandering the halls, checking up on staff or retrieving wayward meeting participants.

There are applications where this makes perfect sense. Military medical diagnosis in forward combat areas springs to mind, where quick triage of injuries could be done in areas too dangerous for unarmed medics.

In business, this intersection of video conferencing and robotics is less of a collaborative tool than a management device. While I'm wholly in favor of video conferencing and telecommuting, if you need to have your physical presence at your place of business so badly that you're considering a robot facsimile – well, maybe you should really be at your office.