Robot Mediated Communication by Susan C. Herring

In “Robot Mediated Communication” by Susan C. Herring, there is a significant amount of human interest placed on the abilities of robots to acts as intermediary for communication. This transforms traditional CMC and has become its own category, but the essential feature of communication is equally emphasized, “The most important component of communicating through a telepresence robot is the conversation itself” (Herring 9).

Herring investigates the world of Robot Mediated Communication (RMC) by citing a couple different studies, although some social experiments have been conducted, there is not an abundance of literature or studies in the field. She defines RMC as human–human communication in which at least one party is telepresent through voice, video, and motion in physical space via a remotely controlled robot or “video conferencing on wheels”. They allow users a richer senses of being with the person they are videoconferencing with and provide the ability to basically be two places at once (Herring 2). The difference between CMC applications and RMC, is that RMC is asymmetrical, in that one person is telepresent via a robot (the pilot) while others are physically present (the local interlocutors). The first commercial telepresence robots were mobile robotic platforms designed for use by physicians in medical settings, but in the past few years the number of commercially available telepresence robots have increased. Herrings says when people think of robots, they tend to think first of autonomous robots such as R2-D2 and C-3PO in the Star Wars movies; however, telepresence robotics is a form of robotic remote control by a human operator that is used to facilitate geographically distributed communication and simulated face-to-face (FtF) conversation (Herring 3). On the other hand, the line between telepresence and autonomous robots often gets blurred because telepresence robots have obstacle avoidance features which are typically associated with autonomous robots. RMC telepresence robots are defined by five characteristics: embodiment, the ability for robots to be designed like a human; size, height and width of robot adjusted for work environments; movement, ability to roll in physical space; audio and video, the pilot “sees” through the robot’s cameras and “hears” through its microphones; and message transmission, supports synchronous, ephemeral, two-way, voice-based communication similar to video conferencing or FtF communication. Telepresence robots that were used in technology workplaces for a year or more were found to enhance impromptu work meetings (especially to ask questions, exchange ideas, and get answers), being available, planned social meetings, planned work meetings, seeking people and greeting/socializing. People may also ascribe social meaning to the robot’s size. Robot height influenced local interlocutors’ perceptions of leadership effectiveness. Herring suggests that language and discourse in RMC should be thoroughly researched according to five categories: structure, word choice/use, pragmatics, interaction management, and social phenomena. As far as the future of telepresence robots is concerned, developers should enhance RMC by adapting robots to include built-in navigation and map-creation technology; automated speech translation across languages; augmented reality technology that overlays the video with information about current or anticipated interlocutors drawn from an Internet database; and sensors to collect information about the remote environment (Herring 11). According to Herring, the main challenges to widespread adoption of telepresence robots are Internet/WiFi reliability and the cost of acquiring units.

This is very exciting technology and seems like something straight out of the Jetsons, but people are already using them in their lives and within the next decade, as they are more commercialized, they will become an ordinary part of life at the workplace and even at home. I would have thought RMC would be extremely awkward and almost cumbersome in the work space, but according to Herring that is not necessarily the case. “The novelty effect of using a telepresence robot wears off quickly, within 15 minutes. Sometimes, the robot becomes effectively ‘invisible-in-use'” (Herring 6). So it seems that they are not as annoyingly in the way as I would have suspected. Herring said her findings lend support to Lee and Takayama (2011)’s claim that RMC blurs “boundaries … between person and machine, physical and virtual, and being here vs. being elsewhere” (Herring 6). I believe this technology becoming more commercially available along with virtual reality and augmented reality will contribute to creating a new world that transcends our current reality. Will people develop emotional attachments and friendships with these robots that were originally designed to mediate communication from a co-worker, friend or family member? How do you make RMC available in the third world to assist the needs of developing countries, and monitor their progress?

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