Why Robots May Be Your Next Meeting Attendees

Technology Associations Now May/June 2016 By: Samantha Whitehorne

If you're looking to make your meeting more accessible to attendees and speakers who are unable to attend for some reason, you may want to consider bringing in a robot.

If you're looking to make your meeting more accessible to attendees and speakers who are unable to attend for some reason, you may want to consider bringing in a robot.

If you happened to be at the Educause Learning Initiative 2015 Annual Meeting in Anaheim, California, in February, you may have noticed a nonhuman in attendance.

And, no, we're not talking a dog or cat, but rather a robot. That's right: For a second year, ELI welcomed a telepresence robot to the event.

The robot—basically, a small screen atop a handle attached to a mobile base (shown at left)—allowed nonattendees to take part remotely. However, unlike most virtual participants, a remote user in control of the robot could have a face-to-screen conversation with in-person attendees.

Throughout the three-day meeting, a number of people took remote control of the Suitable Technologies BeamPro robot—nicknamed Beam—to try their hand at things an in-person attendee would do, such as attend poster sessions, check in at registration, and participate in small-group discussions. (Beam always had a human guide to ensure it didn't topple over or fall down a flight of stairs.)

Those maneuvering Beam offsite used the arrow keys on their computer keyboard to make it move and received a constant audio/video feed of the physical environment surrounding the robot. A front-facing camera and set of microphones on Beam let users see and hear, while the webcam and microphone on their own computer let them broadcast their face onto Beam and project their voice over its speakers.

Educause encouraged in-person attendees to have some fun by taking selfies with Beam and sharing them via social media.

And while telepresence robots have a cool factor that will likely make them popular attendees, they can also help make your meeting more inclusive. The robots can bring your meeting to life for those who are unable to attend in person, whether for budgetary, personal, or medical reasons.

[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "Robot Invasion."]

Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is deputy editor of Associations Now in Washington, DC.