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LABS
iPad 2 As A Remote Presence Device?

Since last summer I have been one of our few “remote Pivots” after I moved from San Francisco, CA to Atlanta, GA. Pivotal and I agreed that I’d try working remotely, remote-pair programming full time with fellow developers in our San Francisco and NYC offices. Overall it’s worked out wonderfully for me, my teams, and clients. I use the same technologies that fellow remote-Pivot Chad Woolley recommended in 2008 — a VPN connection, Mac’s Screen Sharing.app and Skype video chat, but we’re always looking for ways to more seamlessly integrate our remote developers into their teams.

With that in mind I became very excited when the iPad 2 was released, with its front-facing camera and FaceTime app. How perfect! For the last month our team has experimented using an iPad as a “remote presence” device for me.

How did it work out? Keep reading to find out!

The Setup

The goals were as follows:

  • Integrate the remote person more seamlessly with the team.
  • Offload cpu and network intensive video chat off of the pair programming machine.

As for why an iPad 2:

  • Ultra-portable.
  • Super easy to use.
  • Video chat software, FaceTime, is built in.
  • Less expensive than a MacBook Air (we’re an Apple shop.)
  • Less likely than a laptop to be borrowed and used for other tasks.
  • It’s an iPad! I mean, just look at the thing!

The Results

After a month of on-again, off-again iPad-Joe experiments with pair programming, meeting attendance and other tasks the results are in! Drumroll please…

The iPad 2 is a horrible remote presence device.

Overall, it’s a total bust. Oh well.

What Works

The iPad does function well as a remote presence device in a few cases:

  • Fully passive: If all I need to do is watch and listen then it works pretty well.
  • It’s very easy for a team member to pick “me” up and take me to a meeting, where I was a mute participant.

What Doesn’t Work

While the iPad has a ton of potential as a remote presence device, there are many kinks that need to be worked out first.

Skype

There’s no dedicated Skype app for iPad. The iPhone app works, but poorly, though it’s noise-canceling does seem a bit better than FaceTime.

FaceTime

FaceTime is the largest disappointment.

  • FaceTime “mutes” the remote person when the iPad-user is speaking. Also, the microphone is extremely sensitive, picking up all background noise. Thus, in our noisy office, FaceTime mutes me for most of the time. It’s like a walkie-talkie only random, or AT&T service in San Francisco.
  • FaceTime does not route sound through external speakers, such as the iHome iD9 device we tried, forcing all sound out of the extremely quiet internal speakers. Thus, even when FaceTime allowed me to speak, nobody could hear me.
  • FaceTime does not recognize external microphones other than the iPhone earbud mics. Other apps, such as Garageband, supposedly will work with mics like the Snowball (which has excellent noise cancelation) when connected via the camera connection kit.

Finally, hauling an iPad, an iHome, and a Snowball mic around the office totally defeats the purpose of ease-of-use and portability!

Many of these limitations might be solved via software updates. We’ll try again when Skype delivers an iPad app and when other iPad software updates come along.

(Edit: typos.)

Comments
  1. Matthew Kocher says:

    Interesting and unfortunate – the iPad seems perfect for this. We ended up setting up an spare 24″ iMac with a Snowball on a shelf at about a ninety degree angle from our workstations, and the remote pair skypes into that and leaves a video feed running through out the day. We can walk over and ask questions, they can see if we’re around and turn on the sound if they want to chat with us. It increased our connectedness as a team substantially.

    It took all of twenty minutes to set up – skype auto launches and auto accepts calls and video requests, and the machine is scheduled to shut down half an hour after we leave and come on half an hour before we get in.

    The only thing lacking is OSX support for Pan-Tilt-Zoom webcams.

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