Personal Roving Presences

Toby Howard

This article first appeared in Personal Computer World magazine, January 1999.

"BEING THERE" is not an experience we normally associate with browsing the Web. Although we speak of "visiting" a Web site, it's actually the other way around: we stay exactly where we are -- it's the data that comes to visit us. But two researchers at the University of California want to change all this. They're experimenting with what they call "tele-embodiment" -- giving a surfer a real physical presence at a remote Web site, in the shape of a remote-controlled mobile robot.

John Canny and Eric Paulos call their robots "Personal Roving Presences", or PRoPs. The idea developed from previous experiments with robots they called "space browsers" -- small helium-filled remote-controlled balloons. An operator, controlling the blimp using a radio link and a Java applet in a Web browser, would "pilot" it around a roomful of people, engaging them in conversation using the camera, microphone and speakers attached to the blimp. The idea was perfect for "happenings" at Electronic Art festivals -- but the weight of the batteries and the instability of the balloons made them impractical.

Next, Canny and Paulos came down to earth, experimenting with "surface cruisers" -- small-scale mobile robots again with a wireless connection to the Web. Their latest PRoP looks a bit like a high-tech version of the dancing broomstick from Disney's "Fantasia". The base of the PRoP is a small motorised cart about the size of a shoe-box, with steerable wheels. On the cart is a battery pack and a PC with a wireless link. The cart supports the PRoP's "body", a thin vertical shaft 1.5m tall. At the top is the "head" -- comprising a video camera, microphone and speaker, and an LCD display screen. There's also a small motorised arm intended not for manipulating objects, but for "gesturing". The operator controls the PRoP via a simple Web interface, moving and steering it with the help of real-time images from the PRoP's "eye". A video camera pointed at the operator's face sends the image to the LCD panel on the PRoP's head. The idea is that the operator (embodied as the PRoP) wanders around the remote scene, meeting people and chatting with them -- or just "hanging out", as the Americans say. It must be alarming to turn a corner and unexpectedly come face-to-face with one of these things -- especially if it starts gesturing at you.

Until recently, tele-operated robotics has involved complex and expensive special-purpose robots needing trained operators. Canny and Paulos believe that the future lies with very simple robots with a few basic behaviours: moving, watching, listening, speaking, and displaying a video image of their Web operator. The future, they say, is "telepresence for the masses". And they're not alone in wanting to go beyond the passive browsing that mostly characterises the Web. Several tele-robots already attached to the Web let you experiment with telepresence. Try to pick up some blocks with the simple robot at the University of Western Australia, for example; then zoom across to the opposite side of the planet, to the Carnegie Science Center's Online Telerobot. You can even paint with with a robot at "Puma paint". The robot at this site holds a paintbrush which it can dip into one of four different pots -- you choose the colour, tell the arm how to move and even how much pressure to apply to the canvas. Judging by the equipment, someone has put some serious money into this "cybercommunity art" project, and they'll even post your picture to you by snail mail. Closer to home is the Bradford Robotic Telescope, high on the West Yorkshire moors.

Much of the cutting-edge research is coming from NASA, where the goal is to develop efficient telerobotic interfaces to control landers on future space missions. NASA demonstrated with the Sojourner Mars lander that telerobotics is essential for space exploration, and its future plans rely heavily on the "Interplanetary Internet" project (see Futures, November 1998). There's even a project coordinated by Carnegie Mellon University to allow public control of a lunar rover.

PRoPs and telerobotics will bring a new dimension to global communications, and instead of being a New Age myth, the "out-of-body experience" may soon become a technological reality.

Toby Howard teaches at the University of Manchester.