My so-called robo-life: Robopresence makes debut at tech conference

I bumped into someone recently. Admittedly, I wasn’t watching where I was going -- in fact, I was heading for the food table. The person who brushed against me wasn’t paying attention, either. In fact, it wasn’t really a person at all. It was a robot.

I was too.

I was controlling the Beam remote-presence device at the RoboBusiness conference in Santa Clara last week. The person who brushed against me was also controlling a Beam. There were approximately 50 robopresence operators in attendance there, along with a few hundred “real” humans.

The Beam is essentially a Skype bot with wheels -- a giant screen with your face that you drive around. You can maneuver it easily from across the room or around the world, spinning 360 degrees and driving around the room. The robot has enough juice for about eight hours; when you first start operating one, you pull away from a charger like you’re disconnecting an iPhone.

I took my laptop to a local school to demo the Beam. I’ve never seen teenagers so attentive.

On my laptop, I could see a wide-angle view of the surroundings thanks to its camera. There’s a large forward view in the Beam app for Windows or Mac, plus a second camera that shows my view of the floor to help with tighter navigation. The app provides sliders for my voice and volume on the left and my face to the right. There isn’t a laser that encourages people to get out of my way yet, however.

More On This...

In the morning, the conference started with a “Beam only” event. I ventured onto the eerily vacant showfloor. At one of the first booths, for the Neato robotic vacuum, I zoomed in for a closer look. Several companies, like the Australian think-tank CSIRO, were happy to demo augmented reality goggles for me, although I could not try them on (I'm a robot, remember?). To snap business cards, I asked the presenter to show their card to the camera. Smile, and say future tech!

Around midday, I took my laptop to a school in Minnesota to demo the Beam robot in California. I’ve never seen teenagers so attentive. A few controlled the robot. At the Unbounded Robotics booth, the exhibitor didn’t bother to get up out of her chair. “Are you ten years old?” she asked one of the teens running the robot. Another student tried to ask a robot out on a date -- it was an epic fail.

Back at the helm that afternoon, I met Scott Hassan, the founder of Beam. He explained how the Beam could be used to further remote communication.

“Imagine having five different Beams you control at five different tech conferences!” he told me. At CES in 2015, he hopes to have 10,000 Beams available for virtual attendees. He said reporters could use them to enter war-torn areas as well. Someday, you could hire low-cost human operators to do virtual research.

Before my event started, I tried to arrange meet-ups with people in California not connected to RoboBusiness. A few were interested at first until they realized I would be there only as a robot. Of the three meetings I had arranged, two dropped out at the last minute. One, the founder of a social networking start-up called Addvocate, did drive down to meet me.

“This is just as awkward as I imagined,” he said. The founder, Marcus Nelson, explained how his service works -- it’s a business tool to manage a brand -- but later explained how he thought robopresence removed a human element. Without handshakes or the realization that you are in the presence of a carbon lifeform, it might not last, he said.

Indeed, as the event “rolled” on, a few of the booth exhibitors brushed aside my questions if there was a human standing nearby. I estimated that my Beam was about 50 percent human, with a voice and a face and physical movement and sight, but it was nothing like a human presence. When my bot bumped into real people, they rarely said excuse me. I also had no success at that food table.

Deciding to venture a bit further, I went to the Beam booth, where there were attractive female attendants controlling Beams. I asked one to bring me out to the convention hall.

“Sure, just follow me! If your Beam gets a little wonky, just head on back,” she said in a chipper voice, referring to the fact that the Beam connects over Wi-Fi in a limited area.

We rolled out of the expo and into a foyer. In my most surreal moment, following behind her through a crowd of gawkers, we stopped at a window and looked out at the California sunshine -- just two robots, enjoying the view. At the UPS store nearby, I asked the clerk if he could box me up and send me home. That didn’t go over well.

Does the Beam have a future? I think so. The main limitation is that the bot works only in a limited space. It weighs 100 pounds, so transporting it is a challenge. The Beam can’t snap photos or record video either, which is a bit surprising. Also, it costs about $16,000. People tend to ignore a Beam if the operator is in a dark room; good lighting and sound helps. But, my main complaint is this: There’s no iPad app, so you’re stuck with a clunky old laptop controller.

I will use one again. The cost savings and travel is one thing, but the Beam also saved me time and allowed me to work easily during down times. Most important, I collected roughly the same information I would have collected in person -- the ultimate robowin.