Working remotely can feel like you’re always on the periphery of things, lost and forgotten by managers and coworkers who can’t see you. So it’s great when people come up with better ways of giving remote workers more presence. One fascinating idea that makes use of videoconferencing technology is the “Embodied Social Proxy” (ESP) designed by a team of Microsoft researchers lead by Gina Venolia.
The set up is pretty simple. It’s basically just a “computer on a cart” although they did put particular care into how they used and positioned the cameras. They found that it was best to use multiple cameras, one with pan-tilt-zoom abilities and a second nifty $650 fisheye lens camera that allows the remote worker to take in a 140 degree view of a space. This means the remote worker can participate more fully in a meeting since he or she can now actually see what’s happening on the whiteboard (which is essential in brainstorming and design sessions). It’s also nice to be able to see all of the people in a meeting at the same time and to see who’s talking, especially those sitting to the sides of the camera.
What’s drastically different about ESP’s is the concept that an ESP is set up specifically for one particular remote worker and represents that person. Even when the ESP is not “on” it still stands in for the remote worker and is a strong visible reminder of the remote worker’s presence. Some study participants even put a hat on their ESP to make their proxy more personal and easy to identify. Furthermore, when the ESP is “on” it’s more natural for passersby to spontaneously initiate a conversation. Theoretically, the remote worker could make it so they are always visible on the ESP screen throughout the day. As one of the study’s participant noted, even if people don’t start conversations with him, just hearing the sound of their voices keeps him from feeling isolated and makes him feel more a part of the group.
To sum up Venolia et al’s research, ESP’s work great!
Remote workers (they called them satellites) felt like they were more connected to the team and able to participate more fully in office life. Their coworkers felt more familiar and friendly towards their remote counterparts and were able to interact with them in a more physical way, which also made them seem more real, especially those they had never met in person.
However, on a practical level, setting up an ESP for each remote worker could be a problem in terms of cost and space, especially if you have a lot of remote workers and not just a singleton here or there. I guess you can’t have your cake and eat it, too.
Anyways, of you want to try something out, Greg Arnette has an easy step-by-step “computer on a cart” set up, minus the cool fisheye lens camera. You can also check out Scott Hanselman’s more in-depth solution and discussion of his home grown set up.
The next thing I’m waiting to hear about now are portable robot proxies roaming the hallways!