Establishing your virtual presence on the cheap

virtualmartha 2
Credit: David L.

I was excited to see what Double Robotics has accomplished with their telepresence robot, especially when one showed up on an episode of The Good Wife. Double Robotics’ device (see is making it possible for teleworkers to have their “doubles” moving around the office, chatting with staff, and attending meetings. The devices works like an iPad on a Segway, though the stand/roller part of the setup is much lighter and slimmer than a Segway, so it’s more like an iPad on a rolling stick. But the movement is controlled remotely and the person controlling it has a sense from their screen of moving around the office and interacting with the staff because their “double” really is.

double ted eytan flickr / Ted Eytan

the Double

What amazed me even more, however, was how much can be accomplished with some older and more modest technology. If you want to have a virtual presence in your office and are willing to forgo the ability to move about the office space, let me introduce you to Virtual Maggie.

Virtual Maggie is a combination of more traditional software and equipment that allows a person to sit in a remote office (generally at their home) while people in the workplace can both see and converse with the remote worker via a stationary screen.

The real Maggie (Bob, Ginny, Sandra, or your name goes here) sits at a desk at home with her laptop in its docking station and two monitors. One of the two monitors has a built-in webcam picking up Maggie’s face and movement. And Maggie has a wireless headset plugged into one of the USB ports, so both Maggie’s face and voice are available for sharing. 

virtualmartha 4 Bob R.

Maggie also has Skype installed on her desktop, configured to use the monitor’s webcam as its default and the headset as its default microphone and speaker. She’s using Avaya One-X and has it set up to use her headset as an IP softphone. If she gets a phone call, she can switch the headset from Skype to Avaya One-X and answer it, and can then return the headset to Skype when she’s finished with the call.

In the workplace, a standard PC with Skype installed is providing Maggie’s virtual self to anyone who walks into the office suite or stops by to ask Maggie questions. This system has an external webcam with a built-in microphone that is perched on top of the monitor and connected to the PC with a USB cable. The PC also has an external speaker so that everyone can hear Maggie speaking.

For this Maggie, Avaya One-X and Skype are running over Citrix where Maggie logs into and uses a virtual desktop, adding another layer of security and flexibility.  Maggie interacts with visitors on one screen and works on her virtual desktop on the other.

The end result is that everyone who needs Maggie’s help can walk up to Virtual Maggie and chat with her. The key benefit is that, for anyone working in the office, it feels as if Maggie is available and on duty. They can say “Good morning” when they walk by her desk or ask a simple question without having to resort to email or a phone call. For anyone who needs to interact regularly with staff, this kind of ease and naturalness can make a huge difference in how effective and productive they can be. While Maggie can no longer replenish the m&m's in the bowl at the front desk, not even Double Robotics’ “Double” can do that.

virtualmartha 3 shs

For anyone who works with Maggie, she’s still right there in all the ways that really matter. In fact, one of the people who works with Maggie told me that someone in the office sneezed this morning and Maggie, without hesitation, said “Bless you!”. Telecommuting has never worked so well.

Disclaimer: Virtual Maggie is not a commercial product, but a very clever use of existing technology to create a virtual presence that is both effective and surprisingly enjoyable.

This story, "Establishing your virtual presence on the cheap" was originally published by ITworld.

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