Visit Often: Affordable Telepresence Machines Arrive on the Market

Alison K. Lanier

Digital communication over the years has drawn closer and closer to trying to simulate real, face-to-face human contact. Telepresence is a slightly different bent on a theme that has been making inroads in communications in the last year.

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The Beam+ telepresence machine is available for preorder at the company’s website for $1,495.
Credit: Suitable Technologies

Skype, for instance, announced its 3-D program in which—with special laptop equipment—a 3-D image can be transmitted across Skype. What’s better than 3-D Skype? One startup company, according to the MIT Technology Review, is offering, for $995, the stuff of science fiction.

These are practical telepresence machines, or robots, simulate the movement and presence of a person on video chat. Skype describes the potential of their 3-D technology as eliminating business trips for would-be-travelers who would, with Skype, be able to appear in their appointed chair at the business meeting on the far side of the world.

Telepresence machines take the technology a step further. These robots are meant to mimic as closely as possible the actual presence, as per its name, of another person. These machines look “like a television on wheels,” according to The New York Times, and can be driven remotely from a computer, beaming live video back to the monitor.

A Startup Vision

Suitable Technologies, represented by Scott Hassan at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nev., pitched their newer, cheaper television product, called Beam+. Beam+ has a 10-inch monitor and a promising future with families, according to the MIT Technology Review. Hassan thinks its popularity will lie with traveling businessman and children with aging parents who want to maintain meaningful, practical, and convenient relationships with distant family members.

“For people with dementia or Alzheimer’s, I think that being able to see and hear and walk around with a familiar face is a lot better than just a phone call,” Hassan said to MIT. “You could also just beam in and watch ‘Jeopardy’ with your grandmother on TV.”

History of Telepresence

The idea isn’t new. Years ago, the idea was first introduced as a way to bring a newer, better dimension to Internet chats, but at the time the technology was too expensive to be practically available for the everyday consumer. But the times and the price tags have changed, and the idea of telepresence in the home have made a resurgence, according to The New York Times.

The Times gave a laundry list of potential uses for the conduit machines, everything from a parent reading a child a bedtime story from half-way around the world or a businessperson avoiding travel expense while still rolling around a conference on Segway-like wheels. Anyone with login credentials, once Beam+ is installed in a household, can access and control the robot’s movement around the house.

Beam+ is not alone on the telepresence scene. iRobot and several other startups over the years have released what MIT calls, “The New, More Awkward You,” that remain “relatively expensive.”

Suitable Technologies introduced Beam+ for home and business customers. “Visit those you care about. Visit often,” according to their website, alongside, “Join your team from anywhere. Collaborate effortlessly.”

More Communication, Greater Distance?

The potential popularity of a machine like this has its dark side. If made financially feasible this could potentially have serious harmful effects on the social interaction, the Times reported. Instead of “visiting often,” Yvette Pearson, a professor at Old Dominion University who works in philosophy and robot ethics, expressed her concerns to the New York Times that, “The telepresence robots might justify in people’s minds visiting less frequently. That is a disadvantage that many of us in the field are concerned about.”

Noel Sharkey, a professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield, expressed similar trepidation to the Times. “Someone who lives five miles away might say, ‘Oh, I can’t be bothered. There’s something good on TV. She’ll be all right. I’ll look at her through the robot,’” he said.

While for now social science concerns may be at the forefront of the conversation, there are more auspicious conversations happening in the background. The robots as a purely technological innovation promise more than out-of-body family visits for medical care.

One thinker, Charles Kemp, professor at the Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines at Georgia Tech, believes that these machines have a strong future in health care for the elderly. “If you have inexpensive mobile robots in homes that people are already using, there’s the possibility that we can attach arms to them,” he said. “I see these telepresence robots as a step toward robots of the future that can serve 24/7, delivering personalized care.”

Visit the Suitable Technologies website to learn more about the Beam+.

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