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Life Telepresent: Working Vicariously Through The Beam Robot

November 8, 2012 | Telepresence Options
By Paul Miller, The Verge

Last week I took a trip to Willow Garage in the heart of Silicon Valley. It's not a hard place to find, and I was on time for my 11AM appointment. Just one problem: I was supposed to be at Suitable Technologies at 11AM, not Willow.

Suitable is a recent spinoff of Willow Garage, which might explain my confusion. In fact, as I stood befuddled at Willow's reception desk, I was greeted by Scott Hassan, the former CEO of Willow Garage, and current CEO of Suitable.

His original plan, he explained, was to greet me at the Suitable offices via Beam, his brand new telepresence robot. I'd flipped the script on him, requiring an in person meeting, but he didn't seem to mind too much. He led me back to his office, which was well-equipped for making a good tele-impression. In addition to the large number of screens requisite for a nerdy CEO of a robotics company, Scott had some diffused overhead lighting, a fancy studio-style boom microphone, and an HD Logitech camera mounted above a large LCD pivoted to portrait mode. The screen showed a live video stream of Suitable's office, from the point of view of a robot.

Scott sat down at the desk, and began to pilot his Beam. He introduced me to a couple of his remote colleagues, and together they began the spiel.

Willow Garage was founded by Scott six years ago, backed by mysterious venture capitalists, with the purpose of accelerating the birth of the robotics industry. The company is responsible for the open source operating system, ROS, which has helped transform and unite robotics research and, increasingly, commercial robotics. Suitable is one of Willow's many spinoffs, and this time Scott decided to go with.

Like many of Willow's spinoffs, Suitable began as an in-house project. Its first telepresence robot was called Texai, an intimidating beast that looks like a bachelor's home entertainment system, glued on top of an industrial-sized vacuum cleaner. The company built 30 of the robots, and was ready to ship, but prerelease customer feedback wasn't favorable, and it scrapped the project at the last minute.

So it started over, and, as of today, Suitable is shipping its $16,000 enterprise-focused robot, dubbed Beam, to a few hand-selected customers.

"It's only futuristic in the vein of a Bose Waveform radio"

In the corner of Scott's IRL office was a dormant Beam in its charging station. The device is, as Scott explained to me, purposefully unassuming looking. Unlike the Cylon-like Texai (not one of the sexy newer Cylons, one of the original toaster Cylons), the Beam looks boring. It's only futuristic in the vein of a Bose Waveform radio, if a Bose Waveform radio was 62-inches tall, with a 17-inch screen mounted atop it. The goal is for the device to disappear, and the tele-commuter's presence to be emphasized.

The comparison to the Waveform is most fitting in terms of the device's large speaker grill. Inside is enough wattage to let you shout across a large room, along with an array of microphones capable of directional noise cancellation. As fascinating as video chat by robot is, facilitated by a large camera eyeball at the top of the bot, audio is still top priority.

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