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The tech boom in the San Francisco Bay Area has created intense competition for software engineers. Kids straight out of college can start salary negotiations at six figures, and rents are rocketing.

Scott Hassan, an early Google engineer and now an investor and entrepreneur, thinks he has the solution for companies that think they’re wasting time and money chasing new hires: make it more practical for engineers living in cheaper places to telecommute to work. His company, Suitable Technologies, has developed a roving telepresence system that is five feet, two inches tall, placing its 17-inch screen at roughly the right height for a hallway conversation. It is not the first mobile telepresence system to hit the market, but Hassan says it has features that will make it more practical and less awkward to use than previous systems.

Enabled by increased use of computers and the Internet, teleworking has become more common over the past decade. But Hassan says existing technologies are lacking. “We need a better mode for collaboration than Skype, or a phone,” says Hassan. “We should be able to travel instantly and not just as a voice or a screen on the wall.”

Suitable Technologies will begin taking orders for the $16,000 Beam RPD telepresence system today (the charging dock costs an additional $950). Orders will begin shipping from the company’s Palo Alto, California, factory in November.

Hassan says the system can be used to save on the expense and time of long-haul travel, or to allow remote workers to be more fully integrated into an office.

“Being able to source people from anywhere in the world is a big advantage to companies,” he says. “In most jobs, you don’t actually touch anybody, but it’s useful to be able to see and talk with people informally.” Hassan says a remote worker could stay logged into a Beam system all day, so that anyone can stroll up and start a conversation with them, just as they would in person. Likewise, the Beam’s pilot can roll over to a colleague, or attend any formal or informal meeting.

Beam has an eight-hour battery life and weighs approximately 100 pounds (45 kilograms), making it sturdy enough to shove office chairs or a partly closed door out of the way. The operator’s interface shows the view from a camera over the screen, as well as smaller views looking down, toward the unit’s base. A user drives it by moving a mouse over their view of the distant world, and clicking where they want to go. A graphical overlay indicates the direction and speed the Beam will move in.

Suitable Technologies was spun out of Willow Garage, a robotics research lab founded by Hassan in 2006. Willow Garage has developed an open-source operating system for robots, ROS, which powers other products, including the recently unveiled Baxter (see “This Robot Could Transform Manufacturing”), and it underpins leading work on having robots autonomously carrying out new kinds of chores (see “Robots that Learn from People”). Hassan says that his new company’s project is not a robot, because it lacks sensing and autonomy. Instead, he refers to it as an RPD, for remote presence device.

Suitable Technologies is not the first company to develop such a telepresence system (see “Telepresence Robots Seek Office Work”). But other systems have demonstrated that technology still needs some polish. Social interactions between people and such telepresence systems have tended to be awkward—including for the pilot (see “The New More Awkward You”). Hassan says that Suitable Technologies has done more in-depth research and development to come up with a design that mitigates those problems. The large screen allows a person’s face to be a natural size, whereas the phone-sized screen from competitors such as Vgo and AnyBots makes it difficult or impossible to read facial expressions.

“You’d think putting a laptop running Skype on a stick was easy and all you needed,” says Hassan. “We learned in our research that it’s a lot harder than you think to make it really work.”

Another innovation of Beam is that it has two Wi-Fi radios, so it can connect to two wireless networks at the same time. That removes the problems of “hopping” between the multiple Wi-Fi networks present in a typical workplace, says Hassan, which can cause breaks in video and audio streams. When Beam moves toward the edge of one network’s range and into that of another, its spare radio connects to the new signal while the first keeps working, allowing an instant handoff, says Hassan.

Beam also has a wide-angle camera to reduce the tunnel vision effect of looking at the world through a regular camera, and a second camera that allows the pilot to see around the unit’s base. An array of six microphones, including some on the rear of the Beam’s screen, allow for noise-canceling so the distant pilot can hear clearly. It also allows the user to hear voices to the unit’s side and rear, useful in group situations.

Suitable Technologies got started after Willow Garage hired an engineer that lives in Indiana and built a prototype roving telepresence system called Texai to make it easier for him to communicate with colleagues at the company’s labs in Menlo Park. Before long he was wheeling up to his own desk every day, and several other companies expressed interest in the design (see our profile of Leila Takayama, a social science researcher who researched how to make that prototype better suited to social interactions). That engineer now works at Suitable Technologies, and commutes using a prototype of the product launched today. Research on Texai continues at Willow Garage—for example, into how to give it the ability to correct an operator’s steering when the unit’s about to run into something.

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Credit: Suitable Technologies

Tagged: Computing, robotics, AI, telepresence, Willow Garage

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