Friday, April 22, 2011

Simulating Awkward Interactions

While I worked at Steelcase I got a lot of newsletter type emails. Jim Hackett, the CEO, would occasionally send out "state of the company" emails, detailing stock performance, providing revenue predictions, and giving sincere messages of encouragement. While interesting to read, as an intern I didn't have a whole lot of vested interest in their content. More intriguing to me were the emails sent out by Bob Krestakos, the CTO. During the time I worked there (and from what I've heard from my dad, for a long time before I got there) he was involved in a lot of strategic decisions about the role of IT in a large furniture company. A lot of times the emails he sent out included musings about which technologies might catch on as ways to improve work environments. (That is, after all, Steelcase's mission statement.)

Since I left about a year ago now, he has evidently continued to send out those emails, and today my dad passed one on. Apparently Bob had been invited to try out a new telepresence system in which a user controls a robot that virtually becomes the user's physical presence in a room. He went on to talk about how as he was guiding his robot down a hallway after a meeting, he ended up passing another remotely controlled telepresence robot and struck up a conversation with its operator. All of this happened across vast geographical distance.

My immediate question was "Why is this necessary in any way, shape, or form?" How could it possibly be more efficient to take a telepresence system, which works fine when it's set up statically in a room, and put it on wheels? You don't hold teleconferences in a hall. You don't need telepresence in every room, but even if you do, there are relatively portable units available on the market now. Why waste the design and engineering time, the materials, and the electricity to add that functionality?

I responded with these questions, and my dad responded by saying that maybe it was similar to why business people fly all the way across the country to meet with someone when they could just pick up the phone or use a telepresence system. It's more personal. Whether it's logical or not, physically bumping robots into each other, albeit remotely, just feels more personal than standard telepresence.

That's a great insight. I don't know whether it's worth the cost off the top of my head, but I'd be willing to bet that studies would indicate that it's more worth it than you might think at first glance.

I think there's something more subtle at play though.

First, take a moment to think about how many contacts you have in your social networks that you could get in contact with at a moments notice. You can see when they're online, one click and you could be chatting. In fact, webcam sessions (identical to telepresence, just with lower fidelity audio and video) are just as accessible through Gmail and Skype. Think of all the great conversations you could have at any given time if you just made a tiny bit of effort! We rarely take advantage of that resource though, except with close friends.

Now, think about the last time you bumped into an acquaintance in a hallway at work or school. More often than not, pleasantries are exchanged and a conversation might even occur. I've heard about businesses (Steelcase is one) that actively try to avoid private offices for this exact reason. Get people walking past each other! Get the IT veteran to talk to the marketing guru for just a few minutes and who knows what might happen!

So what's the difference? It's that in situation one, encounters are passive. You know that someone else is online, but by not doing anything you avoid conversation. In situation two, by not doing anything you risk coming off as aloof at best and inconsiderate at worst. You're forced into a mildly awkward interaction, and the easiest way to deal with it is to act like a pleasant human being and say hello, maybe strike up a quick conversation. Not every chat is going to result in some technological breakthrough, but at least you're providing a situation where it's possible.

As a computer engineer, my thought process immediately jumps back to those robots. Seeing someone else's robot zipping past has a bit of the same effect. You imagine the other user thinking to him or herself, "Hey, he just zipped right past me. I know he saw me, why didn't he say hi?"

The bigger question, in my opinion, is whether it's possible to simulate that type of mildly awkward interaction online. If it is, you can save a whole lot of DC motors and kilowatt hours and just go back to using the good ol' internet.

If the answer to that question is yes, the next question is: how?

So who's up for it? Who wants to make the internet a little more awkward in the name of progress?

Comments, suggestions? I'd love to hear them.

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