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January 17, 2014

Is That You or Your Robot? Affordable 'Telepresence' is Near

Sure, most of us have wished for the ability to be in two places at once, but until the recent development of things like telepresence, this wish has been little more than just that: a wish. The recent unveiling of the Suitable Technologies Beam+ robot, meanwhile, has put telepresence systems right in our clutches, assuming our clutches also hold some cash we're willing to part with.

Telepresence robots aren't exactly new; such robots have been around for some time, serving as ways to connect users in business, or as a way to get a doctor to a remote location without the doctor having to travel. For regular people, though, telepresence robots have been largely out of the picture, costing too much to be readily affordable.

However, the Beam+ telepresence robot offers a significant step forward in that direction by way of a greatly reduced price tag. The Beam+ robots sell for $995 for the first 1,000 units, and then after that first block is sold, the price goes $1,995. That may still sound like a pretty hefty price tag, which for many it likely is, but it's actually a substantial savings against even the Beam+'s predecessor, the Beam, which sold at around $16,000. The price reductions came about, at last report, as a result of changing some of the materials involved in building the robot, going from metal to plastic and changing the kind of tablet screen involved in the robot's “head.”

So, what do users get for that price tag? The robot itself almost looks like a freestanding basketball hoop, with a broad wheeled base holding the whole thing down and allowing it to move around. On a stalk extending up from the base there's a screen that presents the image of the robot's operator, essentially allowing it to look like an extremely slender human on wheels, without arms or legs. The robot can be controlled via Windows 8 tablet, or via a Mac or PC thanks to a native application. The user maneuvers the robot to where it needs to be, and then can interact with others via a two-way video chat that takes place in the aforementioned tablet screen.

There's quite a bit of competition in the field, ranging from Double Robotics' $2,500 robot to the Unbounded Robotics' UBR-1, which comes with an arm and a price tag of $35,000. This pretty much makes Suitable's Beam+ one of the value competitors in the field, and it's a field that may be set to expand soon. With an increasing numbers of baby boomers set to retire, the telepresence robot may prove to be a valuable part of normal operations. Essentially, it's a robot that leaves the house for a user, and allows said user the ability to enjoy an evening out without having to actually go out. Apply it in reverse—the robot brings other people to the user—and it has just as many applications in terms of elder care. It can reduce business travel while still providing at least a form of the face-to-face contact that's important to a lot of users, it can widen the focus of medical care out to rural areas, and there are plenty of other possibilities from there, explaining handily why there are a lot of competitors in this field.

While only time will tell just how well these sell—or if users will wait for further price drops—the end result is that we may be looking at a big, robot-driven future right in the middle of our homes. 


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