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Why Commute? Just 'Beam' to Work

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News,Science and Technology

A growing number of companies are selling telepresence robots _ mobile video-conferencing systems that give remote employees a physical presence at work. At Suitable Technologies "beam" to work on the telepresence machine their company sells. (Dec. 24)

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SHOTLIST:

SOURCE - ASSOCIATED PRESS/AP CLIENTS ONLY

Palo Alto, California

1. Close Bottom of "beam" machines

2. SOUNDBITE: SCOTT HASSAN/CEO, SUITABLE TECHNOLOGIES

Beam is a product that we have designed over the years to let you be remotely present or to travel instantly to anywhere in the world.

3. Mid Two Beam machines rolling out of room

4. Mid Beam machines rolling past camera

5. Mid Beam machine, Scott Hassan's face on screen, rolling into room

6. SOUNDBITE: SCOTT HASSAN/CEO, SUITABLE TECHNOLOGIES (seen on Beam screen)

It's a system for allowing you use your laptop or your desktop to basically be somewhere else anywhere you want.

MENLO PARK, CALIFORNIA

7. Mid Scott Hassan sitting at desk

8. Mid Hassan at desk

9. Close Hassan navigating beam through computer screen

10. SOUNDBITE: SOUNDBITE: SCOTT HASSAN/CEO, SUITABLE TECHNOLOGIES

It's a video conferencing system that you can drive around but it's a lot more than that. We basically designed this for enterprise, to be able to use as a business tool, to go to meetings, to work with team members, and basically to be there when you need to be.

PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA

11. Wide Beam with Hassan on screen moving through room

MENLO PARK, CALIFORNIA

12. Close Hassan's screen as he navigates

PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA

13. Mid. Man sitting in chair, looking at Hassan on Beam screen

MENLO PARK, CALIFORNIA

14. Close. Screen on Hassan's desk, looking at co-worker

15. Mid. Two Beam screens - Hassan and Dallas Goecker/Electrical Engineer, Suitable Technologies

16. SOUNDBITE: STEPHANIE LEE/ENGINEER, SUITABLE TECHNOLOGIES (on screen of Beam in Palo Alto, California. Lee is actually in East Palo Alto, California

"it's really convenient just to be able to work from home some days."

17. Wide. Exterior, Beam, Suitabletech.com on sign outside building

18. SOUNDBITE: SCOTT HASSAN/CEO, SUITABLE TECHNOLOGIES

"our initial market where we were interested in targeting is remote workers to be able to work somewhere else, and get a job somewhere else, and then they actually live.

19. Mid. Goecker on screen

20. Wide. Beam rolling through big room

MENLO PARK, CALIFORNIA

21. Close. View from Beam on Hassan's screen

PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA

22. Mid. Two Beams rolling through room

MENLO PARK, CALIFORNIA

23. Close. View of co-worker "Peter" from Beam on Hassan's screen

PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA

24. Mid. "peter," in person, along with Goecker on screen

25. SOUNDBITE: SCOTT HASSAN/CEO, SUITABLE TECHNOLOGIES

"being there in person is really complicated. Commuting there, flying there, all the different ways people have to get there. Beam allows you to be there without all that hassle."

MENLO PARK, CALIFORNIA

26. Hassan at desk

PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA

27. Mid. Two men in office, speaking with Hassan and Goecker on Beam screens

28. SOUNDBITE: DALLAS GOECKER/ELECTRICAL ENGINEER, SUITABLE TECHNOLOGIES (goecker is physically located in Seymour, Indiana)

"this gives you that casual social interaction that you're used to at work. When you show up at work, you say hi to others, you know, BS about this or that, and that's what this provides.

29. Wide. Two men watch Beam screens

30. Close. Bottom of Beam moving around

31. Mid. Man looking at Hassan and Goecker on Beam screens

32. Wide. Workers in lunchroom, Hassan and another man visible on Beam screens

33. SOUNDBITE: SOUNDBITE: DALLAS GOECKER/ELECTRICAL ENGINEER, SUITABLE TECHNOLOGIES

"I don't get to eat lunch with them, unfortunately, they have really nice lunches, but other than that it does satisfy that social sort of interaction that, you know, you need, when you're otherwise sort of isolated at home."

34. Close, two men in lunchroom, Hassan on screen eating

35. Wide lunchroom

36. Mid. Two men conversing with 3rd man on beam

37. Close. Red haired man on Beam screen

38. Hassan and Goecker on Beam screens

39. Goecker's Beam machine rolls through door

STORYLINE:

Engineer Dallas Goecker attends meetings, jokes with colleagues and roams the office building just like other employees at his company in Silicon Valley.

But Goecker isn't in California. He's more than 2,300 miles away, working at home in Seymour, Indiana.

It's all made possible by the Beam _ a mobile video-conferencing machine that he can drive around his company's offices and workshops in Palo Alto. The five-foot-tall device, topped with a large video screen, gives him a physical presence that makes him and his colleagues feel like he's actually there.

"This gives you that casual interaction that you're used to at work," Goecker said, speaking on a Beam. "I'm sitting in my desk area with everybody else. I'm part of their conversations and their socializing."

Suitable Technologies, which makes the Beam, is one of more than a dozen companies that sell so-called telepresence robots. These remote-controlled machines are equipped with video cameras, speakers, microphones and wheels that allow users to see, hear, talk and "walk" in faraway locations.

More and more employees are working remotely, thanks to computers, smartphones, email, instant messaging and video-conferencing. But those technologies are no substitute for actually being in the office, where casual face-to-face conversations allow for easy collaboration and camaraderie.

Telepresence-robot makers are trying to bridge that gap with wheeled machines _ controlled over wireless Internet connections _ that give remote workers a physical presence in the workplace.

"There are still a lot of questions, but I think the potentially is really great," said Pamela Hinds, co-director of Stanford University's Center on Work, Technology, & Organization. "I don't think face-to-face is going away, but the question is, how much face-to-face can be replaced by this technology?"

Technology watchers say these machines _ sometimes called remote presence devices _ could soon be used for many purposes. They could let managers inspect overseas factories, salespeople greet store customers, family members check on elderly relatives and art lovers tour foreign museums.

Some physicians have already started seeing patients in remote hospitals with the RP-VITA robot co-developed by Santa-Barbara, Calif.-based InTouch Health and iRobot, the Bedford, Mass.-based maker of the Roomba vacuum.

In West Seneca, N.Y., a first-grader with life-threatening food allergies started attending school this fall by using a telepresence robot made by VGo Communications of Nashua, N.H. The 7-year-old boy participates in class, walks the hallways and even takes part in assemblies _ even though he's sitting at home five miles away, according to the Buffalo News newspaper.

The global market for telepresence robots is projected to reach $13 billion by 2017, said Philip Solis, research director for emerging technologies at ABI Research.

"Telepresence seems like something you don't really need, but in reality as people get used to the technology they'll be using it in different ways," Solis said.

Telepresence robots have attracted the attention _ and money _ of Russian venture capitalist Dimitry Grishin, who runs a $25 million fund that invests in early-stage robotics companies.

"It's difficult to predict how big it will be, but I definitely see a lot of opportunity," Grishin said. "Eventually it can be in each home and each office."

His Grishin Robotics fund recently invested $250,000 in a startup called Double Robotics. The Sunnyvale, Calif. company recently started selling a Segway-like device called the Double that holds an Apple iPad, which has a built-in video-conferencing system called FaceTime. The Double can be controlled remotely from an iPad or iPhone.

So far, Double Robotics has sold more than 800 units that cost $1,999 each, said co-founder Mark DeVidts.

"You can call in from anywhere in the world and you can drive this robot around remotely and not have to be there," said DeVidts. "You can be sitting on your couch in the living room."

The Beam got its start as a side project at Willow Garage, a robotics company in Menlo Park where Goecker worked as an engineer.

A few years ago, he moved back to his native Indiana to raise his family, but he found it difficult to collaborate with engineering colleagues using existing video-conferencing systems

"I was struggling with really being part of the team," Goecker said. "They were doing all sorts of wonderful things with robotics. It was hard for me to participate."

So Goecker and his colleagues created their own telepresence robot. The result: the Beam and a new company to develop and market it.

At $16,000 each, the Beam isn't cheap. But the company says it was designed with features that make "pilots and "locals" feel the remote worker is physically in the room: powerful speakers, highly sensitive microphones and robust wireless connectivity.

Suitable Technologies began shipping Beams last month, mostly to tech companies with widely dispersed engineering teams, officials said.

"Being there in person is really complicated _ commuting there, flying there, all the different ways people have to get there. Beam allows you to be there without all that hassle," said CEO Scott Hassan, beaming in from his office at Willow Garage in nearby Menlo Park.

Not surprisingly, Suitable Technologies has fully embraced the Beam as a workplace tool. On any given day, up to half of its 25 employees "beam" into work, with employees on Beams sitting next to their flesh-and-blood colleagues and even joining them for lunch in the cafeteria.

Software engineer Josh Faust beams in daily from Hawaii, where he moved to surf, and plans to spend the winter hitting the slopes in Lake Tahoe. He can't play ping-pong or eat the free, catered lunches in Palo Alto, but otherwise feels like he's part of the team.

"I'm trying to figure out where exactly I want to live. This allows me to do that without any of the instability of trying to find a different job," Faust said, speaking on a Beam from Kaanapali, Hawaii. "It's pretty amazing."

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