Trade Show Robots: Defying Convention

I take a rather dim view of the new technology of service robots in the workplace. Recently, though, I’ve come across a new use for the technology that makes a lot more sense: video conference-enabled trade show robots.

Unlike robots in the office, trade show robots could be a boon for the $100 billion-plus global trade show and conference industry. Combined with video conferencing capability, these robots could dramatically change how trade shows and similar events engage attendees.

First, a little background. There is a market boom in so-called “service” robots, as opposed to “industrial” robots like the ones used on assembly lines. The International Federation of Robotics estimated the worldwide market for robot systems in 2012 at $26 billion. Service robots, meant for personal or professional use, saw a 20 percent increase in 2012 sales over 2011. From 2013-2016, that segment alone will likely have a market value of $ 17.1 billion.

How does this play into the trade show world? In October 2013, Suitable Technologies made 50 of their Beam “remote presence” or “telepresence” robots available for rent at the RoboConference in Silicon Valley. In a conversation with a trade editor, Suitable’s founder Scott Hassan suggested he could have 10,000 of his robots at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

It’s not such a far-fetched notion to have robots roam the trade show aisles. Some show goers are already renting Segways to cover more convention area quickly. This would just be removing the human element altogether, and replacing it with so-called robot “avatars” already making a splash on the market.

Robot builders originally suggested a far less practical business model, which was to use the technology in the workplace so traveling workers could have the same kind of access as when they’re actually in the office. I just can’t see the market for very many business robots, zipping around on their little robot wheels, popping their little robot video heads into offices. It’s hard to justify more than a couple of these service robots in even a very large company, and that’s not a growth strategy.

Trade shows, though, now that’s another thing altogether. The economics of using robots makes sense there. When CES rolls around, it’s hard to find a hotel room in Las Vegas for less than $400 per night. Add the travel costs, and it becomes prohibitive to have a group of attendees at the show. That cost is even greater for international travellers. Robots would eliminate that expense, or at least reduce it greatly.

And with telepresence robots (that is, robots with video conferencing capability), you’re not limited to one attendee per robot. Today’s video conferencing technology allows for multiple shared calls on the same device. An entire group can attend a conference on a single robot, with eight or nine shared views. Participants can drop in or out at any time, depending on their interest in what’s happening at the time.

All this begs the question of whether exhibitors and show coordinators will have to create robot-friendly environments. It may no longer be practical to have raised platforms in booths and exhibit areas. Printed information like brochures or show guides may be gradually phased out in favor of scannable QR codes to download the information right through the robot.

If robots catch on, we can expect shorter cafeteria lines as more attendees opt for the virtual experience. (On the other hand, it will put a crimp in concession revenues -- and a real dent in the promotional gift market. Expect substantial sales drop-off in stress balls, t-shirts, mints and other promotional items when robots roam the floors.)

Of course, not all show organizers would want to manage 10,000 robots. That opens up an entire new potential line of business, which I’m dubbing “fleet robotics.” Suitable’s Scott Hassan has the edge on the thinking here. Fleet robot rental companies could provide and manage large numbers of robots for trade show or event companies that don’t want the hassle of their own service robots.

It’s not unlike rental car companies that offer fleet services to other businesses. And it opens the robot market to a company like Suitable to supply new channels for their products -- they can sell direct, offer fleet services themselves, or create inventory for an emerging fleet rental market.

Believe me, that market is likely to happen. If we’ve learned anything from Arnold Schwarzenegger, it’s that robots are pretty hard to stop.

This article first appeared in Wired Magazine January 2014