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Bell Labs Builds Telepresence 'robots'

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Telepresence software

Telepresence software in development at Bell Labs.

Credit: Courtesy of Bell Labs

Bell Labs researchers are developing Nethead, a videoconferencing robot that could give remote workers a physical presence in office meetings.

Nethead includes a low-cost camera and a screen that swivels on a set of robotic shoulders. Each Nethead represents a remote participant, who appears by video on the screen and can control the direction the robot faces by naturally turning his or her head.

Nethead also is equipped with a turn-taking mechanism, which determines who should speak next, according to Bell Labs' Jan Bouwen. He notes that in person, people take cues from other members in the meeting to determine who should speak next. However, those cues are not available in current videoconferences. "Even with high-definition video, you can’t see who in room one is looking at who in room two," Bouwen says. "That’s a research challenge we’re trying to tackle."

Other challenges involve monitoring the level of comprehension of meeting members. "Someone showing clear agreement or clear disagreement is [also] important," he says. "If you’re trying to explain something, knowing who is confused and not following is important.”

Other technology under development at Bell Labs targets ad-hoc hallway discussions.

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