The Double 2 telepresence robot is the quirkiest attempt I’ve seen at making remote work, work

Right now, I’m standing in the middle of a Saw Mill near Third Mainland Bridge, Lagos–typing this article on my phone (I have 45 minutes to get it out). It would have seemed crazy to people just 50 years ago that all you needed to get your job done was a soap-sized “smartphone” and a connection to something called “the internet”, but alas. Wake up and smell the flowers; work isn’t what it used to be.

Over the years, we’ve seen all kinds of tools and apps and gizmos built to make work a lot less work. Some of them have come as project management apps like Trello, others have come as text and video chat apps like Slack and Skype for Business and some of them are too amazing to be put into a box…like Notion.

Today though, I’d love you to meet Double 2: the quirkiest attempt I’ve seen from anyone to make remote work…work. It’s a second generation telepresence robot (the kind you’d expect to see in a sci-fi movie), made by Double Robotics, and unveiled in January at CES 2016. Double first launched out of Y Combinator in 2012, started shipping its first iteration (the Double) in 2013 and has sold more than 5000 units since then.

The first thing that crossed my mind when Bankole and I met Double was, “so…it’s just an iPad on a stick that lets you video chat with your coworkers. Meh”, but it turned out to be a tad more. [Update: I’m now in a bus, on the way back to the office]

It’s got a “smart rolling base”, and lets its user drive it around the office using the navigation keys on their keyboard. There’s more. It’s got “lateral stability”, which means it can make its way over the kinds of small objects you’d find on office floors like power cords, and metal room separators without tumbling over (and breaking your iPad screen). More.

Mako Alabi, CEO of Enplug Africa and Robotics Africa Interactive Limited (Double’s only distributor in Africa) thinks it makes remote workers first-class citizens. Over to you, Mako. “Most offices have quite a bit of ad-hoc verbal communication throughout the day. How many of those little conversations do the remote workers miss? Typically, the remote worker is only contacted for higher priority items.”

He continued, “This makes them second-class citizens, since they’re not in the loop on many day-to-day activities. Double gives each remote worker a physical presence in the office all day, every day. They’re there for the hallway conversations. You no longer need to say ‘can someone call Mary and let her know what we talked about?'”

He also thinks that the Double 2 will turn out to be a great enabler, since companies don’t have to bleed talent just because someone’s moving to another city or country. Beyond business, the Double 2 is expected to prove itself useful in telemedicine and education, too. Teachers can teach, and Doctors can…doctor without having to be physically present in the room. According to their website, it does 1.6mph and it’s camera has a viewing angle of 150 degrees which means that Double 2 can “walk” with the average adult while having a conversation.

L-R: Mako Alabi, one of his staff via the Double 2, and Yours Truly

Double will make its first public appearance in Africa today at the IBM Business Connect event at Intercontinental Hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos. Tomorrow? It’s going to show up at the Business Day Bankers Awards, and after that, at a few schools, hospitals and corporate environments. How much will it cost to own one of these? Mako tells me that the Double 2 will set you back $4500 – $5000. Ah. At the current dollar-naira exchange rate, that comes to around N2 million. Yes, it’s “enterpriced”. While I’d rather use a product that doesn’t need to be physically carried and that doesn’t cost an arm, a leg, and a kidney, I can definitely imagine how infinitely badass it’d be to say…interview the Minister of Communications, show up at events, or “network” at conferences as a $5000 robot.

Interesting: I wonder what would happen if you stuck a 360-degree camera on the  top of the device, and a VR headset on my head. Hmm. 

Even more interesting: People’s reactions when they are minding their business at conferences and they see a robot rushing towards them with a smiling face on its screen.