‘Beam’ into the office with telepresence robots by Suitable Technologies


It's no secret that humans are social beings, and that the social environment at work can really change our view of the job we do. If we're away from the office, we can telecommute to get our work done and teleconference to keep in touch. But we lose out on the social aspect of the job and we can miss out on the impromptu conversations at our desks or in the lunch room that can lead to important breakthroughs. Well, science and technology can now offer a solution to that problem in the form of 'telepresence robots'.

Also called 'remote presence devices', these remote-controlled robots consist of a computer monitor with a built-in web camera and speakers, mounted at roughly eye level above a wheeled base. The monitor displays the webcam view of whichever computer is controlling the robot and, in return, its webcam sends whatever it sees and hears back to the controlling computer. The remote user can then direct the robot to move about the office and interact with their coworkers as if they were actually there.

Suitable Technologies — headquartered in Palo Alto, California — produces one remote presence device, called Beam.

"This gives you that casual interaction that you're used to at work," said Suitable Engineer Dallas Goecker, according to CTV News. "I'm sitting in my desk area with everybody else. I'm part of their conversations and their socializing."

Goecker first worked on the Beam system as a side project when he was an engineer at a small robotics company named Willow Garage, in Menlo Park, California. He had moved back to his home in Indiana, to raise his family, and found telecommuting to the west coast to be cumbersome.

"I was struggling with really being part of the team," Goecker said. "They were doing all sorts of wonderful things with robotics. It was hard for me to participate."

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Goecker and the others at Willow Garage came up with an interesting solution. They applied those "wonderful things" to the problem, and built Goecker a robotic body that he could remote pilot from his home. This robot, named 'Texas', was equipped with a monitor and speakers to relay video and sound from Goecker's home office, and a webcam and microphone to transmit what the robot was seeing and hearing back to him, so that he could drive Texas around the office and interact with everyone there while he worked from home.

The project was such a success Suitable Technologies spawned off from Willow Garage, specifically to develop and market the Beam, and they also provide an excellent example of the technology in action. As many as half of their employees regularly telecommute, so it is not unusual at all to see human workers and Beam workers attending meetings together, talking at their desks, or having lunch together.

Each Beam unit comes in at a price of $16,000 US, however, compared to the travel expenses of commuting or regularly flying in staff for meetings, inspections, or to remote areas, that price tag can be reasonable. Avoiding regular commuting or traveling also makes for happier, less-stressed employees, and thus a far more productive workplace.

According to Goecker, "Living in Indiana and working in Silicon Valley via Beam isn't just the best of both worlds, it is both worlds."

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