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audio-quality and connectivity issues that bedevil teleconference participants. “Ninety-five percent of the work was on the video conferencing and the wireless connection and dealing with the sound issues,” Hassan says. “I think the audio system alone is half a million lines of code.”
As a result, in the hour I spent talking with Hassan and Lempesis, it was easy to forget that Lempesis was beaming in. That’s exactly the effect the company is striving for, and it could benefit a lot of people, including those who are stuck at home for reasons other than traffic jams.
“We had a university professor beam in the other day,” Lempesis says. “She was told that because of her MS, she would no longer be able to work at the university, because she physically can’t transport her body there. With remote presence, she can give lectures and have office hours and visit with small groups, and she is not kicked out of the workforce because of her physical body.”
Helping people with disabilities was also one of the initial goals of the PR2 project at Willow Garage. But while the older company distributed several dozen of the sophisticated, two-armed robots to research labs, it never managed to bring its cost down to a commercially palatable level. Meanwhile, Hassan says, broadband pipes got a lot fatter. That meant there was another, far easier way to accomplish his original goal, which was simply to give computers the ability to move around.
“What has changed between the time I started Willow Garage and now is that the Internet has gotten really fast, so it turns out a human can control stuff remotely,” he says. “But we can’t get a computer to control a robot any better. I spent a lot of money on this, but it turns out that anything that is really easy for a person to do is really hard for a computer.”
Hassan still envisions a future where devices can manipulate objects in their environment. They just won’t be robots, in the autonomous sense.
“I want to create tools to leverage people and what they are really good at,” he says. “So, if you can imagine putting arms on something like a Beam, that would allow you to pick things up and manipulate things remotely. What could that be like? How much would you be willing to pay someone to beam into your house to cook and clean up? The global workforce is gigantic—what happens if you have people all around the world who can basically beam in for you and do work on a moments’ notice?”
For now, though, Suitable is concentrating on perfecting its first- and second-generation remote presence devices. The company unveiled the $16,000 Beam Pro, which has an 8-hour battery life and is intended for office environments, in September 2012. It’s taking pre-orders now for a much smaller and cheaper version, Beam+, which has 2 hours of battery life and a list price of $1,995.
Beam+ is intended for home use. But I suspect its more economical price tag will make it popular with some businesses as well, the same way the iPad mini appeals to road warriors who don’t want to shell out for a full-size iPad. Hassan says he’d be fine with that. “The Plus costs a lot less to make than the Pro, so if we sell 10 times more, it’s all good,” he says.
Suitable doesn’t share sales figures, so there’s no way to know how much momentum the company has so far. When I visited, a phalanx of Beam Pros was lined up in its warehouse space for final testing and packaging, like so many terra cotta warriors ready to march off to battle. Even at $16,000, a Beam is no more expensive than an enterprise telepresence system from a company like Polycom or Cisco—or than the yearly rent-per-employee you’d pay for office space at a typical Silicon Valley or San Francisco tech company, for that matter.
Hassan is betting that once companies understand that “working remotely” doesn’t have to mean “blowing off work for the day”—in other words, that remote presence devices can actually strengthen communications between workers, or between bosses and employees—they’ll want the technology for their offices. And employees will want it too.
“With audio and video you have the ability to see and be seen, to hear and be heard,” Hassan says. “It turns out when you add those things together, you get more than the sum of the parts.”
Scott Hassan will deliver a keynote talk at Xconomy’s upcoming Robo Madness 2014 event at SRI International in Menlo Park, CA. Get your tickets now.
Here’s a video about Beam from Suitable Technologies.
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