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 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.