Telepresence Test Drive: I try not to crash a robot

Up close with the Beam+ telepresence robot

One of the companies making a big splash at this year's International CES was Suitable Technologies, which was showing off its new Beam+ (or Beam Plus) telepresence robot. For those who haven't yet seen one, a telepresence robot combines a tablet or computer with a couple of video cameras (one on the front, one that looks down at the wheels) attached to wheels via a support pole. A remote user can connect to the telepresence device through the Internet, and then their face and audio shows up on the display of the unit. The remote user can drive this unit around the building, interacting with others (in a conference room, on a plant floor, at the water cooler, etc.) in the same way that they would if they were physically in the building. The folks at Suitable recently let me test drive one of their Beam units (in addition to the new Beam Plus, which is aimed at the consumer/home market). From my office in Framingham, Mass., I was able to control the Beam unit at Suitable's Palo Alto, Calif. offices, as well as speak to another employee using a Beam, who was about two hours away from the California headquarters. Check out the video to see how I did:

The company has been making Beam units for the workplace for a few years now - the big news from the company is the launch of the Beam Plus units, smaller-sized ones that can be placed into the home. For about $2,000 (you can pre-order one for about $1,000), the Beam Plus would allow remote family members (a traveling parent, grandparents, other friends) to interact with kids, spouses and others. It's an interesting take on situations where traveling workers call back home to interact with their kids - at the moment we're doing things like having FaceTime chats or interacting via Skype on a laptop. With a more mobile system, remote parents (or grandparents) can do things like play games with the kids or chase them around the house during a session.

I think we're still in the early days of this market, and we're more likely to see these in workplaces before we see them in our homes. If people can get used to interacting with these in the office, then maybe we'd see them make the jump to a home environment.

From the test drive that I did - the user interface to drive the unit was quite easy to pick up - using a keyboard's arrow keys or a mouse I could quickly make adjustments to the device to move forward, turn, rotate or even back up. A zoom feature on the top video window let me get closer looks at the people I was talking with, and actions seemed to occur almost simultaneously. This software would be quite easy for a non-techie to pick up and use, so we wouldn't have to worry too much about grandma or grandpa driving one of these around the home (although I'd probably still keep the device away from the china cabinet). 

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