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  • Writer's pictureedbaig

Have to go to the bathroom during a Zoom call? Charmin bot can be your digital stand-in

Updated: May 7, 2021

We’ve all been on Zoom calls when, um, nature intrudes. But how do you delicately take a potty break during a virtual conference call with colleagues?

Leave it to the folks at Charmin to drum up a possible answer.

On Monday, Procter & Gamble’s toilet paper brand demonstrated a beta version of its BRB Bot software, which enables an artificial-intelligence-powered digital doppelgänger to take over your live video feed while you are taking care of your other business. The idea is that once you turn on the bot, participants in the Zoom (or other video conferencing) session won’t notice your absence, at least not right away. Instead, they’ll see your digital twin--wearing the same clothes and in front of the same background--nodding, gesturing, even speaking a word or two in real time as if you're right there.

Leveraging AI, machine learning, and natural language processing, BRB Bot applies tone and semantics analysis during the videoconference to trigger what you hope will be the proper prerecorded responses from the fake you in real time.

If all goes well, your twin will laugh appropriately when your boss tells a terrible joke. Or look pensive when you’re supposed to be contemplating a serious matter. You can even be seen pretending to search for the unmute button on the computer.

The idea is to “build your own bot” just before the video conference. Wearing the same attire and under the same lighting conditions in the spot where you’ll be Zooming, the bot software will have you record responses to about a dozen questions, based on whether the conference is of a personal or business nature. For example, how might you look if someone says something terribly surprising or interesting? How will you react to something funny? You might record a short response with your voice along the lines of “yeah, I get this.”

Charmin's brief promotional video above lays it all out there.

If you’re concerned that you really did miss something important while you took your bathroom break, you might have your doppelgänger shown fiddling with headphones. When you return to your computer, you can explain something went wrong and you couldn’t hear a darn thing and ask a person to repeat themselves.

Of course, if you are wearing wireless earbuds when you sit on the toilet, you can still listen in to a call before turning the bot off when you’re back and ready to be seen for real. Just what you want to do, right?

During a virtual Charmin press conference, I didn’t immediately realize that one of the participants, Pittsburgh Steeler wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, had enabled his own bot. But once the tech was explained to me I could tell when it was Smith-Schuster’s doppelgänger and not Smith-Schuster himself on the screen; subtle changes in light and his awkward laughs and nods were dead giveaways.

Actress and comedian Niecy Nash, who was also on the Charmin press call, said “I know I’m not the only one who’s brought their computer into the bathroom, scared that I forgot to leave the mute button on and camera off. I was like `FINALLY someone figured out a way I can sneak off to the throne to handle my business, if you know what I mean.’”

You can imagine that if this takes off glitch-free, people will find other excuses (beyond Number One or Number Two) to skip out on remote meetings, at least for a little bit of time.

For now, BRB Bot is a desktop app for PCs and Macs that sits between the camera feed and microphone on the computer and the video conferencing software. The current beta doesn't work on phones or tablets. Charmin is partnering with IBM Watson on the AI piece of this.

I'm intrigued by Charmin's bot but also frankly a bit creeped out. In an era of deepfakes where it is getting ever harder to tell what's real and what's not, such tech raises scary possibilities.

For its part, Charmin has no immediate plans to commercialize the BRB Bot, still very much a beta experiment. So who know when, or even if, this becomes a real product for the consumer--and, um, passes the smell test?

Back in 2020 at the CES trade show, Charmin rolled out the Rollbot, a poop-time robotic pal mocked by, among others, Stephen Colbert. Its sole mission was to bring you a new toilet paper roll when you were left stranded. We're all still replenishing our toilet paper the old fashion way.

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