My life as a robot

Be there when you can’t be there

Every quarter the Tech teams at JUST EAT take part in a 3-day Hackathon to get away from the day job and generate amazing innovation ideas. As it happens, when the most recent Hackathon occurred I was scheduled to be in Australia visiting our newly acquired companies, Menulog and Eat Now. Never being one to miss an opportunity for a bit of fun we hatched a cunning plan to allow me to attend.
Given how widely distributed our Tech teams are (with a significant presence in Bristol, the City of London, Borehamwood and Kiev in Ukraine) we’ve spoken from time to time about using telepresence robots but were always put off by the price. Recently though, a colleague spotted a new product which seemed to fit the bill and cost a lot less than other models we’d seen.
What better time than Hackathon week to give this a try?
Speaking to the team at Savvy Robotics they agreed to loan us a Double Robotics telepresence robot, which is a gyroscopically balanced robotic stand which uses an iPad Air to create a fully mobile videoconference. You can drive it from pretty much any device or web browser anywhere in the world. For the purposes of the Hackathon, this was going to become Robo-Dave.
Not wanting to spoil the surprise for colleagues we tested Robo-Dave in an out-of-the-way comms room in our London offices, whilst I sat in my Hotel in Sydney using their free wifi.
Hackathon day came and I returned to my hotel in Sydney before midnight to join the meeting. Logging into Robo-Dave I immediately recognised where I was parked and (with my minder in tow) I began driving up to our video wall where the demos were being held. It was a good job I had the minder, as free hotel wifi and a 10,000 mile fibre-optic journey meant things were quite laggy. The video and audio reception were great on my end and good enough for my colleagues in London that people were able to recognise me and have a chat.
Double Hackathon

Having managed to maintain the element of surprise it’s fair to say that the Double generated a lot of interest, from people saying hello to others stopping me to video or photograph, and I really felt like I was present at the Hackathon. The first rule of Hackathons is to have fun, and I’d like to think our little experiment added to that… the fact that (unbeknown to me) I spent much of the meeting wearing a sequinned red fedora and a ‘kick me’ sign, suggests I may be right.
Having returned from Australia we carried out some more testing for staff, working from home and between our offices in Bristol, Kiev and London. Everyone who had the opportunity to use the robot was positive about the experience. The lag was minimal (no minder required) and the video quality was even better.
Most importantly we discovered it’s not just a gimmick, there’s a subtle distinction in the way that people interact with you and the experience is deeply anthropomorphic. You feel like you’re there when obviously you’re not. In fact one of our Heads of Technology commented that he’d bumped into a colleague in the corridor and had a chat about an idea for our payments team. Note it was ‘he’ who ‘bumped into’ his colleague… you just don’t get that chance interaction through Hangouts or Skype.
We were so pleased with our loaner unit that we’ve ordered a Double so we can carry out a full pilot in each of our UK offices. A massive thank you to the team at JUST EAT, and the great folks at Savvy Robotics for making this happen.