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.
Beam Client hands-on
Suitable Technologies Introduces Beam Remote Presence System
PALO ALTO, CA – September 26, 2012 – Suitable Technologies today introduced Beam Remote Presence System (RPS). Suitable designed Beam to enable individuals to travel instantly to remote locations using videoconferencing on a mobile platform. Beam helps people to be more productive and efficient, all while eliminating travel costs.
The Beam Remote Presence System
The Beam Remote Presence System consists of three components: the Beam Remote Presence Device (RPD), the Beam Client and the Beam Dock.
The Beam RPD is your physical presence in the world. The battery powers the Beam for up to eight hours of active use and has the ability to drive at human walking speed – with a top speed of 1.5 meters per second. Beam stands 62" tall, weighs 95 pounds, and has a 17" screen, enabling the pilot's face to be seen at human size. Seamless connectivity is provided by 4 Wi-Fi radios (2.4/5 GHz) and proprietary algorithms to smoothly handle transitions between access points. Beam has two HD cameras to provide a wide field of view, both vertically and horizontally; a six-microphone array for spatialized audio, background noise reduction, and echo cancellation; a sophisticated speaker system in order to be heard in noisy environments; and LED lamps to enable operation in low light.
The Beam Client connects to the Beam RPD and provides integrated controls for driving, video, and audio. The client is available for download as an installer on both Windows and Mac OS X.
The third component is the Beam Dock, which charges the RPD's battery. The driver maneuvers the RPD directly into the dock without any local intervention to connect to the power source.
"Technology has progressed to the point where physical location no longer has to dictate the presence of a person," according to Scott Hassan, CEO of Suitable Technologies. "Audio and video conferencing have made good strides here, but our goal is to develop a system where an individual can travel instantly. With Beam, profession doesn't have to dictate location."
With the growth in dispersed workforces, Suitable anticipates early adopters to come from those businesses with remote engineers or knowledge workers. These individuals can then choose their employer based not on the address of the company headquarters, but on the physical location of their preference. Professionally, individuals want the best, most exciting job possible, but professional goals and personal goals are often at odds when it comes to location. With the introduction of Beam, attributes that are more personally appealing such as family, local schools, housing prices, or outdoor hobbies can be equally measured against the attributes of a particular career.
Suitable Technologies is a spinoff from the personal robotics company Willow Garage. Beam began as a DIY initiative called Project Texai that was originally developed to improve the experience and productivity of Dallas Goecker, a remote employee of Willow Garage.
Dallas, now a Senior Electrical Engineer at Suitable, lives in Indiana where he prefers the cost of living, school system, and family support network without having to sacrifice the face-to-face communication and ad hoc communication with his colleagues in Silicon Valley.
According to Dallas, "Living in Indiana and working in Silicon Valley via Beam isn't just the best of both worlds, it is both worlds."
Suitable Executive Team
The Suitable Executive team is comprised of Scott Hassan, CEO; Milan Bhalala, Director of Operations; Bo Preising, VP of Engineering; and Josh Tyler, Director of Software Engineering.
Pricing and Availability
Pricing for the Beam Remote Presence System begins at $16,000 for the Beam RPD and $950 for the Beam Dock. The Beam Remote Presence System is available immediately for pre-order at http://www.suitabletech.com and will begin shipping in November.
About Suitable Technologies
The Beam Remote Presence System is manufactured at Suitable headquarters in Palo Alto, California. For more information on Suitable, please visit http://www.suitabletech.com and follow us on Twitter @suitabletech