#SXSW2013 - Beam Telepresence Robots

By Tom Kelshaw, Director of Technology at Metalworks

We're often asked: how can we do more, in more places, at once? Every CFO wants savings on travel, whilst every client wants more face-time with our best staff. As a growing network, we need to fly people around for meetings, pitches, strategy, training and conferences, because phone calls and video chats just aren't as effective as being there.

But what if we could travel less and be more present?

At SXSW2013, Suitable Technologies were demonstrating their Beam telepresence robo-vehicle. Seeing photos, I initially thought the form factor, and even the concept, was a bit silly. But experiencing (and operating) the Beam at SXSW converted me on the possibilities of robo-telepresence.  I sat down with (OK, stood up next to) a Beam to find out more.

TK: Hi! Who are you and where are you?
Amy (via Beam): I'm Amy, and I'm in Palo Alto California. And I'm in, or on, a Beam!

TK: What is a Beam?
Amy: Beam enables telepresence and navigation via a WiFi and 4G-controlled wheeled robot with a LCD screen at eye height, and cameras, microphones and sensors. It holds about 8 hours of usage charge, and has a self-charging station the driver can easily dock into. Beams can travel wherever is "accessible", ie. wheelchair-friendly.

[No GPS in the current model, but that would be a great mod!]

TK: How does it work (for participants)
Amy: You can walk with a Beam through conferences, offices, showrooms, across campuses, factories and hospitals. A Beam can attend meetings,  give presentations, go up and down floors in elevators [no hands in the current model, but Metalworks could probably add on robo-arms!].

[People really seemed interested in communicating with the Beams, especially when they were out on the streets, virtually sharing in a beer. Compare this to the divestment and detachment of conference calls.]

TK: How does it work (for drivers)
Amy: Beam software sits on your desktop, just like Skype. It uses a standard HD webcam and microphone. Supplied are "camgirl lights" to make you look a little less harrowed (that ugly webcam-look) by overhead flurescent lighting. Users drive the Beam via arrow keys [like driving for first-person video game]

TK: What can you see?
Amy: There's a wide-angle camera and another downward facing camera so you can see what's on a desk (of if you're about to run over someone's shoes) and 6 microphones for better audio awareness and quality. There's no rear-facing camera because we wanted people to consider these like real people.

TK: Can you swap beams?
Amy: Pretty quickly, it's just a matter of logging onto an available Beam, to travel from say, the London office to the New York office whilst sitting at your desk in Sydney.

TK: What if I need to give a presentation?
Amy: You can screenshare via the Beam, and show Powerpoint on the screen. But we recommend controlling presentations via plugging the projector into the Beam. That way, the audience can scan between your projection and your face, to see your expressions.

TK: So how heavy are you? Can I pack you in a suitcase and take you somewhere like, an annual conference in Paris, or pitch preparation in Mumbai?
Amy: I'm about 100 pounds (40kgs) and I can disassemble into 3 parts. About 2 suitcases. Setup at a remote location takes about 10 minutes. Connect to wi-fi or 4G and away you go!

What can we do with this?

You need to interact with Beam to get the feeling for it, but having a telepresent colleague or client walk around with you, attend meetings in head offices, give a presentation at an off-site event, or have a permanent presence at a client's office, all from a remote desk, is definitely leaning into change.

We'd cut down on travel costs, and impress the hell out of some clients, if we could Beam our global heads and most impressive staff into each office for training, strategy help, and presentation to clients.

Or consider a "virtual exchange" of Maxus people across offices, where you'd work in the London, New York, Delhi or Singapore offices for a week, on briefs, planning and even negotiations with partners. You could even go to lunch! The presence in social contact is so important for building relationships. The 8 hour charge is designed to simulate a work day (on some clients, a few backup batteries might be required!)