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HP sends bots to the boardroom

Why travel on business when you can send your robot double? HP Labs' "travel robot" consists of several flat-panel displays that show a distant co-worker's facial expressions.

PALO ALTO, Calif.--Why travel on business when you can send your robot double?

That's the idea behind Hewlett-Packard Laboratories' "travel robot." A team made up mostly of former Compaq Computer researchers has built the gadget that allows a distant colleague to be more accurately represented at a meeting than is possible through traditional videoconferencing.

With HP's setup, a distant co-worker sits in a small room surrounded by projectors that display the surroundings of the meeting. The robot's liquid crystal display (LCD) screen beams back sounds and images from the meeting to the person. Meanwhile, the robot's head, which consists of several flat-panel displays, shows the distant co-worker's face and facial expressions to those attending the meeting.

HP may have picked a good time to announce the robot. Fear of flying after Sept. 11, 2001, has led to a rash of interest in videoconferencing. And the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak has put a further crimp on already sluggish business travel.

The promise of such technology is that a remote co-worker can hear the formal part of a meeting as well as participate in the chitchat within the room. Using a joystick, the distant participant can pick up on a sound in one part of a room and join in that conversation. However, those present at a meeting should be forewarned that the microphone on the robot is sensitive; hushed conversation in a corner might not be so private.

But for all its potential, the current model is still very much a work in progress. HP still has no commercial plans for the robot, which was built using a number of Windows-based PCs. Although the robot allows people to see the face of a co-worker in near-real time,there is about a one-second delay before the remotely connected colleague can be heard. And although an earlier version of the robot was designed to travel around the office via a joystick controlled by the person, HP has made the latest version static while it tries to work out some of the kinks.

HP is not unique in pursuing robots as a replacement for travel. For example, Los Angeles-based InTouch Health sees robots as a way to allow expert doctors and health care providers to be virtually at the bedside of patients that are hundreds or thousands of miles away.

But HP's lead researcher says that the company is far ahead of other such projects.

"So far the best things that have been done--they still kind of look spooky," said HP Labs researcher Norm Jouppi.

travel robot To be fair, HP's first attempt was rather off-putting in its own right--resembling a slightly bulkier version of No. 5 from the '80s movie "Short Circuit."

Mechanical engineer Stan Thomas said that when he joined the team, he noticed that people spent more time looking at the robot's shiny metal parts than at the video screen that's displaying their co-worker. Thomas helped redesign the device to have a more human-looking (and less jarring) form--the current blue, plastic model resembles a giant Lego.

People seem to like the fact that the new model doesn't have arms, Jouppi said. Although the arms on the first version allowed the robot to perform simple tasks such as pushing an elevator button, researchers say people were put off by the fact that the robot could touch things.

"They'd seen too many movies" with robots crushing things, Jouppi said.

HP wouldn't say how much such a robot could cost--though it is certain to be more than the price of a few plane tickets. The current setup for the distant co-worker uses five PCs, five cameras and a surround-sound system, creating a virtual environment. The in-office robot is made up of two PCs, a number of cameras, four directional microphones and several speakers. A high-speed 802.11a wireless network is needed at the meeting site to transmit the information back to the remote colleague.

Jouppi wishes that his pet project was already a reality.

"I'd like to have something like this," he says. "I have to go on a business trip next week for a two-hour meeting."

News.com's Ed Frauenheim contributed to this report.