IvanAnywhere


And I thought I had a tough commute… A guy (Ivan) on the query processing team lives just outside of Halifax, Nova Scotia. He’s been living out there for a few years now, and has been telecommuting. His ability to interact with the rest of us was greatly improved a couple of months ago when IvanAnywhere was introduced. IvanAnywhere is a “telepresence” robot, built by another guy in our department, Ian. One of Ian’s hobbies for many years has been flying RC airplanes, and after Glenn (Ivan’s boss) semi-jokingly asked him to build a flying RC blimp with a webcam that Ivan could control, Ian thought about it and decided it was possible, though with a robot, not a blimp. He took an RC truck and mounted a tablet PC and webcam on it as a proof of concept, and once that worked, he built a robot that Ivan can control. It has a webcam as well as a digital camera, microphone, speakers, proximity sensors so it won’t run into walls and such, and works over our internal wireless network. Now when Ivan wants to talk to someone, he can just go on down to their office, and he can attend meetings and even give presentations. The robot has a monstrous battery, but can run all day without being recharged.

Ivan can’t do everything himself, though. The robot can’t turn and move forward at the same time, so to go around a corner, it had to go forward, then spin 90°, then go forward again. Update: Yes it can! For tight manoeuvring, Ivan has to point the webcam down so he can see what he’s doing, so it’s easier to stop first. He can’t open doors, and manoeuvring around chairs and stuff in meeting rooms can be challenging. In one meeting, Ivan misjudged how far away a chair was, and the robot crashed into it (ironically, it was Ian’s chair). Also, someone here has to plug the thing in at night to recharge the battery.

Regardless of how cool this technology is, it’s almost no big deal anymore. We’re all so used to seeing Ivan (well, the robot, who we generally refer to simply as Ivan) roaming around, we don’t think much about it. One big difference is that our area is now pretty much mandatory on all building tours, so when customers or other partners visit, they are always brought through this area to see Ivan. Thankfully they haven’t changed our dress code (i.e. given us one) because of this.

As someone who telecommutes on a regular basis, I can certainly see the appeal of this for Ivan. For me, talking to co-workers via email, IM, or telephone is almost always sufficient, but I’m only at home one day a week (though it’s more if the weather is bad or I’m not feeling well or whatever). If I was at home every day and it was pretty much impossible to get into the office, I’m sure I’d miss the face-to-face interaction, and I find attending meetings over speakerphone (when everyone else is in the same room) difficult. Unfortunately, I think I live too close for the company to consider creating GraemeAnywhere.

Cool — just found out that we’ve been slashdotted!

Update: Ian informs me that IvanAnywhere can move forward and turn at the same time, so I updated the paragraph above. Also in the comments I say that it’s running a 9.0.2 server, but it’s actually running 10.0.1, and it stores status and monitoring information, which is used for diagnosing problems.

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