Beam me up and over – test driving telepresence technology

Telepresence has become a very intelligent business strategy, especially for companies that are spread across multiple sites or those with clients in many locations that they need to deal with on a fairly regular basis. Using what is in essence a fairly simple robot, anyone can transport himself to another location, move around through offices and interact face-to-face with people they might not otherwise ever meet. Granted they’re going to look something like large iPads held up by a couple metal rods riding on top of self-propelled vacuum cleaners, the experience is still surprisingly effective.

I’ve recently had a chance to transport myself using one of the Beam presence systems built by Suitable Technologies. I sat in my office in the mountains in Virginia while being transported to an office suite in Palo Alto, California and interacted with two members of the staff. I had previously spoken with one of the same company’s customers at yet another location to get a feel for how they were using their Beams.

During my telepresence visit, I operated both the Beam and the BeamPro. Each device allowed me to move around the suite, test the controls and look around. How did it feel? It was surprisingly easy to maneuver my way around the office space. With two views of the space – one that looked straight ahead and one that looked down at what would have been my “feet”, it was easy to avoid bumping into desks, running into walls or hitting anything on the floor. In fact, with just minor instructions, I was soon in charge and moving confidently about on my own.

Beams are unable to deal with stairs, but roll easily around offices with considerable speed. In fact, I was able to spin around in place as well and move around at a pace that would have been a comfortable walking speed in my old office in Annapolis or around my home. I’ve called the Beam a “fairly simply robot” because it doesn’t have arms that are able to manipulate objects. It can’t help out on an assembly line or even open doors. Its controls allow it to be moved around while showing the operator’s face at the remote site and the space in front of and around the Beam at the other.

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