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January 02, 2013

Just Like Being at the Office

By Joe Rizzo, TMCnet Contributing Writer

Who does not enjoy a good old Sci-Fi movie with robots? They were the wave of the future in the 1950s. It appears that the future is now here. Suitable Technologies has created the Beam. According to Suitable Technologies, you can travel instantly, be in multiple places at once, feel more like part of a team in another location and travel without traveling.

An engineer from Seymour, Indiana goes to meetings in Palo Alto (News - Alert), California regularly. He does this using the Beam from his home. The engineer’s name is Dallas Goecker and he helped to create the Beam. It got its start as a side project at a robotics company called Willow Garage, where Goecker worked as an engineer.

He wanted to be near his family to raise them, but he found it difficult to collaborate with engineering colleagues using existing video-conferencing systems. Goecker said, "I was struggling with really being part of the team. They were doing all sorts of wonderful things with robotics. It was hard for me to participate." So Goecker and his colleagues created their own telepresence robot. The result: the Beam and a new company to develop and market it.

Some of the features that make the Beam impressive are its ability to move around freely, it sees everything a person can see, hears what a person can hear and it’s reliable. It has two dual-band radios and propriety networking algorithms that can provide wireless connectivity that according to Suitable Technologies is unmatched. To make it more comfortable it stands at 5’ 2” which appears to be a good size for both standing and sitting interaction. Goecker said, “This gives you that casual interaction that you’re used to at work. I’m sitting in my desk area with everybody else. I’m part of their conversations and their socializing.”

Some of the draw backs to using a robotic stand-in are money and location. They are still on the expensive side and if they move into an area that has poor Internet reception they could lose their connection and get stuck.

Pamela Hinds, co-director of Stanford University’s Center on Work, Technology, & Organization said, “There are still a lot of questions, but I think the potential is really great. I don't think face-to-face is going away, but the question is, how much face-to-face can be replaced by this technology?"

Suitable Technologies is not the only company marketing telepresence robots. There are about a dozen companies that sell telepresence robots. Some physicians are already seeing patients in remote hospitals with the RP-VITA robot co-developed by Santa-Barbara, Calif.-based InTouch Health (News - Alert) and iRobot, the Bedford, Mass.-based maker of the Roomba vacuum.

Philip Solis, the Research Director for Emerging Technologies at ABI Research (News - Alert), said that the global market for telepresence robots is projected to reach $13 billion by 2017. Dimitry Grishin, a Russian venture capitalist said, “It’s difficult to predict how big it will be, but I definitely see a lot of opportunity. Eventually it can be in each home and each office.” That is why he invested $250,000 in a startup called Double Robotics.

The Beam sells for around $16,000 each compared to about $2,000 for something like the Double Robotics model. But if you compare the two you will see substantial differences. Basically the Double Robotics’ version and many others are essentially an iPad on wheels. The Beam is substantially more solid. Suitable Technologies says it was designed with features that make “pilots” and “locals” feel the remote worker is physically in the room. It has powerful speakers, highly sensitive microphones and robust wireless connectivity.

Want to learn more about the latest in communications and technology? Then be sure to attend ITEXPO Miami 2013, Jan 29- Feb. 1 in Miami, Florida.  Stay in touch with everything happening at ITEXPO (News - Alert). Follow us on Twitter.

Edited by Brooke Neuman
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