December 24, 2012

Telepresence robots let employees 'beam' into work

Mobile video-conferencing machines allow for collaboration and camaraderie between remote staff and their colleagues back in the office.

By TERENCE CHEA/The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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Senior software engineer Josh Faust, seen on screen, navigates his company's office using a Beam remote presence system, as fellow engineer Stephanie Lee, at right, works on a project at Suitable Technologies in Palo Alto, Calif., earlier this month. Faust beams in daily from Hawaii, where he moved to surf, and plans to spend the winter hitting the slopes in Lake Tahoe.

The Associated Press

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Bo Preising, Suitable Technologies' vice president of engineering, seen on screen, tests the Beam remote presence system in a sound room in Palo Alto, Calif., earlier this month. The Beam, a roving computer screen with video cameras, microphones and speakers, gives a telecommuting employee a physical presence in the office that makes him and his colleagues feel like he's actually there.

The Associated Press

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"I was struggling with really being part of the team," Goecker said. "They were doing all sorts of wonderful things with robotics. It was hard for me to participate."

So Goecker and his colleagues created their own telepresence robot. The result: the Beam and a new company to develop and market it.

At $16,000 each, the Beam isn't cheap. But Suitable Technologies says it was designed with features that make "pilots" and "locals" feel the remote worker is physically in the room: powerful speakers, highly sensitive microphones and robust wireless connectivity.

The company began shipping Beams last month, mostly to tech companies with widely dispersed engineering teams, officials said.

"Being there in person is really complicated – commuting there, flying there, all the different ways people have to get there. Beam allows you to be there without all that hassle," said CEO Scott Hassan, beaming in from his office at Willow Garage in nearby Menlo Park.

Not surprisingly, Suitable Technologies has fully embraced the Beam as a workplace tool. On any given day, up to half of its 25 employees "beam" into work, with employees on Beams sitting next to their flesh-and-blood colleagues and even joining them for lunch in the cafeteria.

Software engineer Josh Faust beams in daily from Hawaii, where he moved to surf, and plans to spend the winter hitting the slopes in Lake Tahoe. He can't play pingpong or eat the free, catered lunches in Palo Alto, but he otherwise feels like he's part of the team.

"I'm trying to figure out where exactly I want to live. This allows me to do that without any of the instability of trying to find a different job," Faust said, speaking on a Beam from Kaanapali, Hawaii. "It's pretty amazing."

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Additional Photos

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Engineer Christian Carlberg tests the Beam, a remote presence system, through an obstacle course at Suitable Technologies in Palo Alto, Calif., earlier this month. The Beam is a roving computer screen – with video cameras, microphones and speakers – that stands 5 feet and rides on motorized wheels.

The Associated Press

  


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