When you’re a technology reporter, every startup you visit tries to convince you that you’re seeing a glimpse of the future.
When I toured Suitable Technologies a few weeks ago, I knew I really was.
Suitable builds a remote presence device called Beam. It’s basically an LCD screen, a Webcam, a microphone array, and some speakers mounted on a motorized platform. A user at a remote computer can “beam” into the device from halfway around the world. She can steer using a keyboard or mouse, see what’s going on in the device’s environment, and interact with other people via Skype-style video.
The concept isn’t new: I’ve written about similar systems from competitors like Anybots, Double Robotics, and iRobot. But I wasn’t prepared to see how close Suitable has come to making the idea work flawlessly.
If you thought the day when workplaces will be buzzing with remote presence bots was still a ways off, adjust your worldview. This is a technology that’s ready for prime time (as we’ll discuss at Xconomy’s upcoming Robo Madness 2014 event). My guess is that it’s going to transform knowledge-work-based offices—that is, those where there’s a lot of communication—within a matter of years.
“I have colleagues where I’ve never shaken their hand, but I could tell you about their kids and where they go to school and what their favorite foods are,” says Brianna Lempesis, an employee I met via Beam during my tour of Suitable’s Palo Alto manufacturing and design facility. “I feel confident saying I know them as people.”
Lempesis usually works at the company’s Palo Alto location; she was referring to colleagues who beam in from other Suitable offices. But that day a big accident had snarled traffic on 680, so she helped demonstrate the system from her home while I sat down face-to-face with Suitable’s founder and CEO, Scott Hassan.
I had surprised Hassan moments before by showing up in Palo Alto in “meat” form—the term everyone at Suitable uses for physical bodies. He’d been expecting to do our interview via Beam, but I told him I still thought there was something to be said for first-hand experience.
A true believer in the power of remote presence, Hassan (pictured above) offered me a story as a counterpoint. He has a Beam at home, naturally. “Last summer my wife and I went to Russia without the kids,” he says. “It’s a 12-hour difference to Moscow, and I would beam in at 7 pm [Moscow time] to wake the kids up in the morning and get them ready for school. And then at 7 am I would beam in to get them all ready for bed. One of my daughters, whenever I beam in, she will pretty much 100 percent of the time run up and give me a hug. I don’t think anyone taught her to do it. She just does it. And I bet if you did an MRI scan, her brain wouldn’t show a difference.”
Perhaps it wouldn’t. A few lines back I called Beam a “bot,” but Hassan insists it’s not a robot in the classic sense, and that Suitable isn’t a robotics company, though many of its employees came over from Willow Garage, the now-defunct robotics R&D firm Hassan founded in 2006 and personally bankrolled for seven years. The distinction is key to Hassan’s thinking about the product, and to the appeal of remote presence devices in the workplace and the home.
Robots typically marshal a combination of sensor data, onboard software, and actuators to do a job, autonomously navigate an environment, or mimic a human capability. Beam doesn’t do any of those things. There’s no AI software inside, it can’t steer on its own, and it isn’t even faintly humanoid, the way Willow Garage’s $400,000 PR2 robot was.
You can relate to it, the way Hassan’s daughter does, because everything about the device, from the size of its screen to its height, is designed to draw your attention away from the technology and toward the real person on the other end of the video conversation.
“We tried very consistently to make it not look like a person,” Hassan says. “We want the remote person to look at the screen. It’s the screen that is the important thing.”
And it’s very important to Hassan that people not think of this roving, nearly human-sized device as a “robot”—a term he thinks will eternally be associated with devices that are a little too exotic, expensive, or scary for everyday use. Technologies like HVAC systems and dishwashers help to automate our lives, but no one calls them robots. From a marketing perspective, they’ve been domesticated.
“A garage door opener is more of a robot than Beam will ever be,” he says. “Any product that is going to be successful in the real world has to change its name and get out of robotics. What’s important is what can you do with it.”
So what can you do with Beam? Well, mostly, you can be in two places at once.
While I was at Suitable’s Palo Alto office, we connected to a Beam at the company’s Kansas City, MO, office, which is on a high floor in a downtown skyscraper. There didn’t seem to be anyone around, so I steered the device to a window and peered down at the city where, two time zones to the east, evening was rapidly descending. Then I zoomed over to a server cage, where I could see the lights flashing on individual ports and switches. It was easy to imagine that I was a tech support guy beaming in to diagnose a problem.
Hassan says people inside Suitable use Beams to keep company projects moving fast. “Our creative director, Ben, lives in Detroit,” he says. “And it’s really cool—whenever he needs a decision on something, he will just drive up and screen share and say, ‘Hey do you like this idea or that one, A or B.’ And I’ll say ‘I like that part of A plus that part of B’ and we’ll make the change. Something that used to take a week over e-mail just took two minutes.”
There’s a rule at Suitable: employees have to be at the office, physically or virtually. “You can either park your meat body here or park your Beam body here, but you better be beamed in the whole day,” says Hassan. “That’s so if somebody wants to talk to you they don’t have to figure out how to dial you, or feel like they are imposing. Or if two people are talking about something that has to do with you and you overhear, you can chime in and say, ‘Hey, I got that, I’m working on that right now.’”
For many people, working remotely means a certain amount of time dialing into conference lines with scratchy sound and shaky connections. But with Beam, Suitable seems to have worked out most of the … Next Page »