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Suitable Technologies introduces Beam, the remote presence device (hands-on)

September 26, 2012 | Telepresence Options
By Michael Gorman

Telepresence is a booming business these days, with high speed wireless networks enabling plenty of folks to enjoy the pleasures of working (or attending class) from the comfort of home. While some such devices leverage the power of tablets or smartphones, the visual and audio quality such systems deliver often isn't up to corporate standards. Enter Suitable Technologies and its Beam remote presence device (RPD). As a spinoff of famed 'bot builder Willow Garage, the folks at Suitable figured they could provide a high-fidelity telepresence experience by building an RPD from scratch, and that's precisely what they've done with Beam. Its brain is a 1.3Ghz Intel Core i3 CPU and it moves around courtesy of dual brushless electric motors driven by an integrated car battery. That battery fills up in right around six hours using the Beam Dock, and the LED lamps underneath the screen shine whenever Beam is being used. Users, or "pilots" see where they're going via two Logitech HD webcams sporting custom lenses that grant near 180-degree views and zoom capability -- one's front-facing, and one points down for easy navigation in tight spaces. Connectivity comes courtesy of four WiFi antennas (two 2.4 GHz and two 5GHz) to ensure a solid connection at all times, while the seven microphones provide top-notch voice quality and noise cancellation. Oh, and there's a 17-inch monitor and a speaker on board to faithfully replicate what pilots look and sound like.

We got a chance to meet the Beam's makers and take the RPD for a spin, so join us after the break to see a video of the thing in action and learn more about Beam's development.

Suitable Technologies is a company comprised of twenty engineers, many of whom worked on the Willow Garage PR2 robot. Its first project was the Texai telepresence device, a custom-built rig running Skype optimized neither for cost or performance. Texai proved to be a sort of proof-of-concept that's lead Suitable Technologies to build Beam. And build it did, from a purpose-built video chat service to the custom code and recommended router setups that keep at least one of Beam's WiFi antennas in strong, steady signal. The optimum experience for this new RPD model is delivered through a robust 2Mbps connection wherever it roams. That's why it costs $16,000 plus $950 for the charging dock, and that doesn't include the price of building the required wireless network or pilot terminal hardware. And, that's why it's being marketed to companies in Silicon Valley as a way to find and employ talent from anywhere in the country. It's value proposition lies in keeping employees happy, motivated, and able to live in areas outside San Francisco and New York, while lowering the cost of employee travel and providing employers a bigger pool from which to draw potential employees.

We got to do a little beaming, and found the Beam Client simple to use. It's best displayed on a monitor in portrait mode, and gives you a main video feed that shows Beam's surroundings, and a smaller, secondary feed centered at the bottom looking at Beam's base, and an even smaller video of the pilot in the lower right hand corner. The lower left corner is occupied by the call controls. Moving Beam's accomplished with directional keys or via mouse point-and-click. The software superimposes a blue landing strip over the main feed that indicates the 100-pound RPD's trajectory, with clicks further from Beam resulting in higher speed, up to 1.5 meters per second. We found the mouse click navigation to be simple and intuitive, though the directional keys came in handy when docking with Beam's charger, and the video feeds were better than any other telepresence device we've seen. The company starts shipping Beam in November, but it begins taking orders today.

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