Location: Tysons Corner.
Number of employees: 45 local, 210 global.
At Aptify’s Tysons Corner office last week, Chief Financial Officer Kevin Friel bumped into Duke Witchel, the company’s senior manager for global care.
It was a rare occurrence, especially because Witchel works out of Aptify’s Sacramento office — and was in Sacramento at the time.
Witchel was using a remote-controlled robot called a “Double” to wander around Aptify’s Tysons Corner headquarters. The company, which builds and sells association membership management software, is testing out the robot as a way to let its employees visit other offices remotely. In addition to Tysons Corner and Sacramento, Aptify has locations in Chicago and New Orleans, as well as Pune, India, and Alexandria, Australia.
Sold by Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Double Robotics, the robots cost about $2,500 — the price includes an adjustable pole attached to a set of wheels, but not the iPad mounted on top, which the customer supplies. The iPad projects the user’s face to passersby, and uses its camera to help them navigate the robot through hallways and around desks. The user logs into a software application to guide the robot — keyboard commands move it forward, backward, left, right, or adjust the pole higher or lower.
This system, often called “telepresence,” lets employees in disparate offices chat spontaneously, Friel said. And though it’s still testing the robot out, Aptify could soon have at least one in each office, he added.
For instance, when he saw the robot rolling through the office, Friel invited Witchel into his office for an impromptu meeting about a project. If Witchel hadn’t been using the robot, the two would have had to schedule a meeting several days in advance.
“Even though you have Skype, and Skype helps, it’s not the same as being able to move around and chat with people,” Friel said. “The random discussions ... end up being hugely beneficial.”
Witchel (via the robot) has been showing up Tysons office every day for the past couple of weeks.
There are a handful of challenges, he said. The robot doesn’t have mechanical arms, so it can’t open doors — Witchel either has to bump the machine into the door to knock, wait for someone else to come along, or avoid doors altogether. And if he weren’t already familiar with the layout of the Tysons Corner office, he said he wouldn’t know how to get around.
Still, he plans to continue using the robot whenever possible.
“It does give me the sense that I can walk around the office and stop by someone’s desk anytime I want,” Witchel said.