I was strolling down the hall to a meeting on a Wednesday afternoon when I suddenly blacked out, coming to a halt. Stopping by a colleague's desk to say hello, I never saw the Nerf ball he aimed at my cranium. Later, when an editor absently patted my head as he passed by, I crashed to the floor.
Thus went my short, eventful life as QB-82, a wheeled, skinny robot that can reach a height of more than six feet. On the QB-82, my face and voice appeared via the robot's 3.5-inch video screen. Using my laptop's arrow keys, I navigated around the Journal's headquarters becoming a kind of chatty, whirring, stick-figure colleague.
Its maker, Anybots Inc., says such telepresence robots enable far-flung workers to collaborate with peers and log face time at the office still crucial for getting ahead, recent studies have found.
As a remote worker based for years in Austin, Texas, the idea of being two places at once sounded intriguing. I communicate with my New York-based editors and co-workers via email, phone and occasional Skype chats, but maybe "botting" could be better.
Over several weeks this summer, for a few hours a day, I used the QB to bot into the Wall Street Journal's newsroom from my home office.
Rolling around on a Segway-like wheeled base, with a video screen and camera embedded in my "head," I could see and hear my co-workers, who likewise had a portal into my home office life, complete with cameos from my kids and occasional barks from my dog, Bosco.
The robot made me feel closer to distant colleagues. But is it the future of work?
The workforce is increasingly mobile and spread out, but our jobs require more collaboration than ever before. Sales of "telepresence" and videoconferencing systems, from companies such as Cisco Systems (csco) Inc.,
Some firms are buying enhanced videoconferencing systems that allow remote workers to join meetings and share notes, data or sketches with ease, imbuing conference calls with Hollywood-style lighting and sound.
Others are installing video screens dubbed "wormholes" or virtual windows, so that far-off teams appear to be working side-by-side. Firms are also installing meeting areas with seating configured in a horseshoe shape so that workers attending via videoconference appear to be sitting in the same room.
Cisco has even experimented with holographic video, which involves three-dimensional representations of meeting participants, but says the technology is still too costly for wide use.
The small number of firms trying out telepresence robots say they spur more personal connections with remote workers. Phil Libin, chief executive of software maker Evernote Corp., uses a QB to check in on his Redwood City, Calif., office when he's away. "I'll roll around and chat with people. It gives you that casual, serendipitous connection," he says.
During my robot days, I interacted with co-workers I'd never met before, as well as others I hadn't talked with in years; each of them was compelled to greet me as I cruised down the hall. I chitchatted at the office coffee bar, a more lively scene than sipping coffee alone in my kitchen.
But I also nearly careened into glass walls, got stuck in an elevator, could barely hear the discussions in story meetings and got little other writing or interview work done while botting into the newsroom.
Technical glitches delayed our progress we cycled through two robots before a third worked reliably, and it required hours of in-house tech support from Willie Bennett, an indefatigable member of our IT staff whose Job-like patience was tested here. (To their credit, Anybots went above and beyond to troubleshoot, even flying a technician to our New York offices from California to investigate an issue.)
Bill Murvihill, a business development executive at Anybots, says customers can send faulty robots back for repairs, but given the Journal's deadlines, the company opted to send a technician.
Wherever I went, I needed a constant handler and guide, and the spotty wireless signal often left me stranded the video window on my laptop in Texas frozen as the Robot Rachel in New York went dead.
When a co-worker attempted to roll me into an area with better connectivity, the robot would thrash around, emitting an alarming, guttural noise that startled all in its vicinity.
Because of technological hurdles and expense, it will be some time before robots are as common in the office as, say, Skype. Anybots has built only 130 of its "QB" robots, and sold about 50 since they were first released in 2010. Current models sell for about $9,700. (Other companies developing telepresence robots include VGo Communications Inc., Xaxxon Technologies, iRobot (IRBT) Corp.
Mr. Murvihill says that the Santa Clara, Calif., company is "very much aware of the technical problems" and is planning to have a more reliable robot out before the end of the year. He adds that Anybots had no control over our Wi-Fi coverage and that the robot isn't designed to go into elevators.
The QB was a hit in the office. People connected with Robot Rachel, whose friendly mien was hard to resist, proved by the curious colleagues who left their desks and trailed the rolling bot, Pied Piper-style. I even chatted with the Journal's top editor at the daily morning-news meeting, which never happened before from my desk in Texas.
Research conducted by Cisco, which has experimented with telepresence robots in house, found that employees were, oddly, more honest and open with a human-operated robot than with a human colleague. It's unclear why, says David Hsieh, Cisco's vice president of marketing for video and emerging business.
People may just be more present with a robot, due to the novelty factor. And because the robot "doesn't have the benefit of full body language it results in a higher level of openness," Mr. Hsieh says.
Faith Brady, the receptionist at Mountain View, Calif.-based job-listings site Elance Inc., sees that in her workday. She operates a QB from her home office in Lake Villa, Ill., greeting guests in Silicon Valley and offering them a drink. Because the robot lacks arms, she hops on Skype and asks colleagues to deliver the drink.
"Once [visitors] find out I am in my home office an hour north of Chicago they are amazed," she says.
Still, when my editors and I discussed whether we'd rather invest in a robot or several plane tickets to New York, we'd choose the latter.
I may not be as cute as the QB. And flying across the country is a hassle. But to me at least, person-to-robot can't replace person-to-person yet.—Leslie Kwoh
contributed to this article.