Meeting Owl (Owl Labs)

Remote calls into a conference room at headquarters are the worst: too often, voices are muffled, mumbled, delayed and indistinct. When the conversation turns to the whiteboard—forget about it. The best thing to do is hang up and blame it on a bad line.

Meeting Owl, though, seems a long step toward reducing the pain. I got a demo of this smart robot, which you place on your conference room table, where it listens and rotates between people as they speak. A fish-eye, 360-degree lens renders the entire whiteboard visible. If it detects three speakers, and they are in different parts of the room, it shifts to a tri-split screen. And eight microphones make them distinctly clear. "Lots of telepresence robots have been made. The first most important problem is moving around the conference room," Mark Schnittman, the CTO of Owl Labs, told me.

This $799 device can put some people out of work. For example, it can replace the folks who run the camera system at public panel discussions, toggling automatically from person to person. "We put a camera person and a director in one box and made it automatic," said Owl's Rebecca Corliss.

One downside: the Meeting Owl is not voice activated so you have to manually start it up each time. But Schnittman said, "It's 100% possible. It's a matter of figuring it out."

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