There is a lot of writing about how computers (in this case, referred to as “robots”) will take over the role of the teacher (as well as many other jobs) these days. I have my own robot, from Double Robotics, and it is gradually becoming a tool rather than a toy – and it allows me to extend my reach, rather than automate my job. Granted, so far it has mainly been used for experiments and demonstrations (below, a picture from a meeting of an ICT industry organisation in Norway) but better access and a few technology upgrades have made it much more reliable and gradually into something that is useful rather than just fun.
The practical issues with the Double have been numerous, but have largely been solved. Here they are:
- The Double required a lot of manual intervention before I could use it – specifically, it was in my office, and the department administrator would have to unlock my office and unplug it to let it out. This was solved by acquiring a docking station and positioning the Double out in the public area of my department (next to the mailboxes, as it happens.) I was worried that someone would make away with it (or steal the iPad) but both are password protected and besides, the department requires an ID card to get in. This has also meant that other department members can use the Double – one colleague has severe allergies and has to go to his mountain cabin for several weeks in the spring every year, he used the Double to attend seminars.
- The speaker and microphone did not work well. Out of the box, the Double uses the speaker and mike from the iPad. The speaker was too weak, and the iPad microphone picks up too much noise as well as conversations all around rather than what is in front of you. Initially, I solved the speaker problem by using a Bluetooth speaker, but it was on a separate charger and did not work very well. Double Robotics came up with an Audio Kit upgrade which largely has solved the problem – I can now generate enough clear sound that I can use the Double for lecturing, and the directional mike filters out some of the noise and ambient conversations to make communication much more natural.
- Thirdly, the iPad will sometimes go offline because of interruptions, chiefly because of software updates. This means it will not be able to set up a connection, and needs a manual restart. This was fixed by running the Double app in a Guided Access mode (found under Settings>General>Accessibility>Guided Access), a way of setting the iPad to only run one app only, uninterrupted by software upgrades, messages and other distractions.
- Fourth, the sound sometimes disappears on the iPad altogether. This may actually be a physical problem (it has been banged about a bit, and the metal part behind the sound buttons is a weak spot), but was fixed by allowing the physical sound controls to be run in Guided Access mode, and then asking whoever I was talking to to turn up the sound if necessary.
- Fifth and last, the wi-fi connection drops for about 30 seconds every time I go from one wireless router to the next, which happens all the time in our large office building. I solved this by using the cell connection instead. It still has dead spots some places in the building (despite our telecom vendor, NetCom, being headquartered very close to us) but I am beginning to know where they are. It is also solvable by setting up a VLAN, something that requires cooperation from the IT department and which I haven’t gotten around to quite yet.
All in all, I am beginning to find the Double a useful tool. Next time I am invited to speak on TV, I’ll consider sending it down to the studio in a taxi, just to see the reaction. Like many digital solutions, true productivity does not come until everything is digital – for instance, i wanted to use the Double for an early meeting with students last week, but found I couldn’t do it because the door to the department would be locked and there was no way I could unlock it remotely. So I ended up going in for the FTF meeting anyway, even if it was the only thing I needed to be in the office for that day.
A second observation is that the Double elicits all kinds of thoughtful (and less thoughtful) comments from grown-ups, mainly along the lines of how surprisingly natural this is but how traditional face to face is better, alienation etc. etc. The younger element takes to it naturally – my cousin’s eight year old daughter, seeing her Dad in the Double, responded with a “Hi Dad” as the most natural thing in the world.
And thirdly – one obvious use of the Double would be to ship it to wherever I am supposed to be, so I can give a talk remotely. I gave a talk in Bordeaux two days ago. Bordeaux is complicated to get to from Oslo, and the trip ended up taking three days. I could have sent the Double, but a) I think my physical presence helped the talk, and b) the Double has a large lithium-ion battery, and you can’t ship those on airplanes. Consequently, the Double is a tool for making me stay in place while moving about, rather than the other way around.