Virtual offices vs. virtual selves: overcoming isolation in a wired future

robot avatars

There’s a tension at the heart of web working. Technology allows us to do our jobs nearly anywhere, and there’s plenty of appetite for the flexibility of location independence. GigaOM Pro research (subscription required) found that 34 percent of those whose business allows telecommuting opt to spend time at home, out in the community or with customers.

But while workers want autonomy and flexibility, they also want social connection. In an interview, Yosh Beier of Collaborative Coaching summed this up, saying, “people want to have control over the where and when of their work experience, but they don’t necessarily want to isolate themselves.” How will this tension be resolved in the future?

Many point to technology to keep people connected across physical distance, tools “that will make the remote less remote,” in Beier’s words. He points to the mania for Foursquare in the consumer space as an example of people who are physically distant but use tech to “locate themselves.” The same is true for Facebook, which provides a virtual social connection and is a bit like a remote social gathering. Beier sees this trend of using tech to overcome the social isolation of web-enabled distance moving from consumers to web workers:

People actually get a kick out of locating themselves. They want to know where their colleagues are. There will be more programs like Sococo. The idea is to have a virtual office on your screen. You see your virtual coworkers located in their “office” room, can “walk” to their room, when in the same room the mics let you talk and listen seamlessly, you have conference rooms with whiteboards, water coolers and tea kitchens for those in need of small talk, etc. People’s real location doesn’t matter, but they choose to locate themselves in respect to the virtual office so the team cohesion is supported.

But instead of substituting virtual spaces for real ones (the Matrix model), some folks are focusing on substituting virtual selves for physical presence and meeting in real spaces (the Avatar model). Just look at our recent piece on robot avatars you can send to work or events in your stead and control over the Internet. Commenters on the post were skeptical, but Trevor Blackwell, CEO of Anybots (he’s also a partner in Y Combinator), which makes the robo-avatars pictured above, insisted in an interview that the idea wasn’t science fiction:

The thing that’s far-fetched is robots with their own intelligence. Who knows if general purpose A.I. is ever going to happen? But robots that can move around in an office and be used as communication devices isn’t science fiction at all. Now we’re getting to the point where you can do it over a much larger distance because you can just do it over the internet, and the cost is low enough and reliability is high enough that it makes sense to do every day in an office.

Our goal is to have 100,000 of these out there in five years.

Of course, both technologies boil down to an extension of video conferencing, with the likes of Sococo adding the possibility of spontaneity and easy initiation of contact, and robot avatars offering mobility and the ability to inspect locations. Still, whichever technological future you favor, there will still be a screen between you and your fellow humans.

Will these technologies help us balance our desire for flexibility and autonomy with our need for social connection?

Image courtesy Flickr user Robert Scoble

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