Robot lets employees 'beam' into work

Device provides a physical presence for distant workers

 

PALO ALTO, Calif. — Engineer Dallas Goecker attends meetings, jokes with colleagues and roams the office building just like other employees at his company in Silicon Valley.

But Goecker isn’t in California. He’s more than 2,300 miles away, working at home in Seymour, Ind.

It’s all made possible by the Beam – a mobile video-conferencing machine he can drive around the Palo Alto offices and workshops of Suitable Technologies. The 5-foot-tall device, topped with a large video screen, gives him a physical presence that makes him and his colleagues feel he’s there.

“This gives you that casual interaction that you’re used to at work,” Goecker said, speaking on a Beam. “I’m sitting in my desk area with everybody else. I’m part of their conversations and their socializing.”

Suitable Technologies, which makes the Beam, is now one of more than a dozen companies that sell so-called telepresence robots. These remote-controlled machines are equipped with video cameras, speakers, microphones and wheels that allow users to see, hear, talk and “walk” in faraway locations.

More and more employees are working remotely, thanks to computers, smartphones, e-mail, instant messaging and video-conferencing. But those technologies are no substitute for actually being in the office, where casual face-to-face conversations allow for easy collaboration and camaraderie.

Telepresence-robot makers are trying to bridge that gap with wheeled machines – controlled over wireless Internet connections – that give remote workers a presence in the workplace.

These robotic stand-ins are still a long way from going mainstream, with only a small number of organizations starting to use them. The machines can be expensive, difficult to navigate or even get stuck if they venture into areas with poor Internet connectivity. Stairs can be lethal, and non-techies might find them too strange to use regularly.

“There are still a lot of questions, but I think the potential is really great,” said Pamela Hinds, a co-director of Stanford University’s Center on Work, Technology, & Organization. “I don’t think face-to-face is going away, but the question is, how much face-to-face can be replaced by this technology?”

Technology watchers say these machines – sometimes called remote presence devices – could be used for many purposes. They could let managers inspect overseas factories, salespeople greet store customers, family members check on elderly relatives or art lovers tour foreign museums.

Some physicians are already seeing patients in remote hospitals with the RP-VITA robot co-developed by Santa-Barbara, Calif.-based InTouch Health and iRobot, the Bedford, Mass.-based maker of the Roomba vacuum.

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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