Say Hello To Beam, The Robot That's Almost As Good As A Hologram

My body is sitting in my office in Arlington, Virginia. But at the same time, I am also standing in a conference room in Palo Alto, California. 

I’m test-driving Beam, a remote-control robot avatar that gives me a physical presence in two places at once. Thanks to a 17-inch screen and a six-microphone array, I can be seen and heard face-to-face. I can even use my keypad to “walk” around the room to interact with other people—without undergoing a cross-country plane ride. 

Beam was originally developed by San Francisco Bay Area robotics studio Willow Garage. Impressed by its growing potential, founder Scott Hassan spun off an entire new company, Suitable Technologies, exclusively to focus on Beam. A year later, as Willow Garage's other projects seem to be foundering, Hassan has retained a significant number of Willow Garage employees to work on Beam.

My view while using Beam. My view while using Beam.

“Reasoning With A Moron”

Scott Hassan describes himself as a very optimistic person who is constantly viewing problems as far easier to solve than they are. It’s this attitude that brought him success as a programmer who helped Google in its earliest stages as a research project at Stanford University. 

But as the founder of Willow Garage, it only brought him disappointment as he quickly learned the limitations of modern robotics. Everything that was easy for a human to accomplish, it seemed, was near-impossible for its personal robotics model, the PR2. 

“The amount of effort it takes for the PR2 to just pick up a cup requires an unbelievable amount of complication," says Hassan. "It’s hard to comprehend how something so easy a two-year-old can do it can require the whole team’s effort and then barely make it work. It’s not like reasoning with a two-year-old, it’s like reasoning with a moron.”

It’s no wonder that Hassan began to focus on Beam, a Willow Garage project that he spun off into its own company, Suitable Technologies, two years ago. Beam faces very few of the same problems thanks to human intelligence. Where PR2 sees windows as entryways and mirrors as terrifying enigmas—“If you ever face a robot invasion, all you need to do is get some mirrors,” Hassan jokes—the human-controlled Beam knows better.

Hassan still believes in personal robotics, and said he expects robots to be in our homes within the next five to ten years. But for now, Beam holds the most promise, and Hassan wants to give it every opportunity to succeed. 

“I think Beam is a very viable product that needs more resources and team members to make it into something widespread,” he said.

Bye, Robot

But when he moved the majority of Willow Garage employees over to Suitable Technologies this month, something had to give. And that turned out to be the PR2. 

Read more: Why We’ll Have Robots In The Workplace Before Robots At Home

While most Willow Garage employees transition over (Hassan could not yet give me an exact number), a team will stay behind to support the 50 PR2s that exist in research labs around the world, continue to build the rest that are in progress, and sell the rest of Willow's stock. If you’ve got $450,000 lying around, perhaps you can snag one.

“The PR2 was never designed to be mass marketed,” said Hassan. “We knew we were going to stop making them at a certain point. But the ideas we came up with along the way were the follow-up market product would be. My vision is that Beam is that.”

Hassan hopes that Willow Garage employees’ experience working on the PR2 will lead to dramatic technical advances to Beam. His next goal is to have Beam users be able to interact with their remote environments through remote-control hands and arms. 

The sun may be setting on Willow Garage and its most impressive personal robot, but Hassan’s vision of personal robotics is alive and well. 

“Beam is the gateway to personal robotics,” he said. “It’s a very simple application allowing you to be somewhere else. Now Willow Garage is bringing us all the expertise and manpower we need to make that happen.”

The Future Of Beam

At $16,000, Beam is the most expensive remote-presence system that currently exists. But it’s also arguably the most sophisticated, with an extensive speaker and video array. Hassan said that this iteration of Beam is not designed to be affordable for users because it’s not intended for the consumer market.

“For the consumer market it seems expensive,” Hassan said. “But it’s not an expensive enterprise product. Our enterprise customers aren’t worried about the price. Instead, they’re impressed by what it can do.”

However, Hassan said interacting with his kids while away on business has opened up new use cases for Beam: Eating dinner with them via Beam. Getting them ready in the morning through nothing but Beam’s voice commands. Giving them rides around the house on Beam’s sturdy, 100-pound base. 

“My seven-year-old daughter always gives Beam a hug when she sees my face appear on the screen,” he said. “I don’t know if she realizes this isn’t the norm.”

While most parents couldn’t afford the current Beam, Hassan said he’s now planning on making more affordable Beams for the home. The long term strategy is to have low-end, mid-range, and high-end Beams for sale to different markets. 

Substituting For The "Meat Body"

Wheeling my way through Suitable Technologies’ production floor, I can certainly see the appeal that convinced companies like IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and Google to purchase their own Beams. As I walk and talk with Greg Hamilton, Suitable's enterprise accounts manager, there are very few cues that remind me I’m not there in person. At 5’3” and 100 lbs., Beam is just a bit taller and lighter than my actual body. And thanks to arrow key navigation, it only takes a bit more concentration than normal to walk around. 

“I bet if you later came here with your meat body, as we call it, you’d remember how to get around,” he said. 

Hassan predicts Beam will change the way we work, live, and travel in less than a decade. Hundreds of customers have taken Hassan’s optimistic pitch at face value. And after trying Beam out myself, this optimism is infectious.