Thursday, October 4, 2012

Business Telepresence

Bloomberg Business Week recently posted an article on business technology entitled “Beam Yourself Anywhere for $16,000”.  This article shows how robotics technology is being used to help people be “present” at a meeting or event, without really being there.  The particular product discussed, Beam, is a remote-controlled videoconferencing system that allows workers to drive around a building and drop in on a meeting or someone’s office without physically being there.  All someone has to do is navigate the robot using a PC mouse or keyboard.  Because users have to maneuver the device, Beam is not a robot, but it uses similar technology making it a useful asset for companies.  The system has two wheels and a video monitor supported by two posts on a base. 
Beam presents many opportunities to companies, specifically those that do work on an international level.  Beam’s technology allows employees to virtually take a trip through a factory or plant without the hassle of traveling.  Also, it allows someone to sit in a presentation and move around to see either a PowerPoint or the people in the room, much better than a simple conference call or an iPad that doesn’t allow for free motion.  At a large plant, someone can Beam onto the production floor and analyze a problem from anywhere.  Group collaboration is another great use for Beam.  It can enable a team member to join in on group discussions, conferences, and even team building exercises, without the inconvenience of static videoconferencing where a member can be forgotten due to their physical absence. 

This technology isn’t for everyone.  For small businesses, the cost probably outweighs the benefits.  This is a case where a company must decide what IT bust suits their practices.  Beam may seem like a great investment for businesses as it completely eradicates the need for conference calls, but one downfall is that it has to be remotely moved back to a base station before the user can hang up.  And with any wireless technology, it may not always be as reliable as actually physically being in a building.
Suitable Technologies, the creator of Beam, has scheduled Beam’s release for November, but will November be early enough?  In order to stand out in the crowd, Suitable Technologies needs to get their product out to businesses quickly.  A new product with a similar concept is “Double”.  Double is a moving support for an iPad that uses Apple’s FaceTime technology to videoconference.  One advantage Double has over Beam, however, is that it only costs $1,999 and comes out to customers in December.  While Beam may be more sophisticated than Double, the affordability of Double may make it more marketable than Beam.
Regardless of competition, one thing can be certain – telepresence robots like Beam and Double are the future of businesses and communication.  These devises may soon eliminate travel and make corporate globalization an even bigger possibility. 

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  1. I found this topic not only incredibly interesting, but mind-blowing as well. I can’t believe that technology has reached the point where the person does not even have to be in the room for a conference anymore. I am only 19-years-old and I find myself saying that it did not seem that long ago where conference calls and Skype sessions were groundbreaking technologies!

    Anyways, after reading I would like to touch on what I feel a couple of the advantages and disadvantages are. First, I agree with the fact that this technology has incredible potential in that it will save businesses a ton of money. As you mentioned, Telepresence technology allows an individual to attend a meeting across the globe without physically being there. Although I have not experienced global travel, I know my father would appreciate this technology. As a salesman, he constantly has to make trips to Asia and Europe for conferences with businesses there. Not only is this costly, but they are mentally and physically draining. With this technology, you could contribute to any meeting at any location right out of your house or office. Not only does this encourage corporate globalization, but it makes it quick and easy as well. Who would have ever thought we could put quick and globalization in the same sentence? Certainly not me.

    On the other hand, this technology leaves myself asking a few questions: 1) Is it practical? 2) What kind of effect will it have on the way we communicate? 3) Can “Beam” be competitive in the market? In regards to the first question, I have doubts on how easy these systems are to use. After watching the video, it seems as if they are user-friendly, but I have a feeling it looks easier than it actually is. In other words, I envision one of these systems getting a door slammed on them or running into a wall, which seems ridiculous, but could prove to be costly. Secondly, I question if this type of technology has a negative effect on the way we communicate. Mainly due to cellphones and social media, face-to-face communication is a lost skill in this day and age. One of the few times we are forced to have face-to-face conversations is in business, and now through this technology, we are even making these interactions artificial. I am worried that this world will get to a point where everything can be done at the click of a button.

    As a concluding thought, I also wondered if “Beam” could be competitive in the market. As you mentioned, Apple has created their version of the technology and called it “Double”. With “Double” coming out before “Beam” in December as well as being a cheaper version of the same type of technology, I would think that “Beam” will have a tough time competing. I guess we will have to wait and see.

  2. Business telepresence is an innovative technology that has great potential to improve business efficiency. Beam has the ability to make it easier for people to communicate in one sense. However, I’m not sure that it is completely beneficial in others. It is useful in the sense that people in other states can communicate with their business without being in the office ; however, this can be done through different forms of telepresence or video conferencing which is why I pose the question, why is it necessary to have wheels and driving manipulation? If an employee needs to discuss with another co-worker, why should a company invest in this invention instead of just using a video chat system like Skype? This invention is useful when an employee is out of the state or country and needs to run a meeting on behalf of his or her company but it is not useful for employees who are both in the office to communicate to one another. By the time one employee starts up the machine, navigates it to another person’s office, and then drives it back to hang up after the meeting, the process could have been cut in half by physically getting up and walking over to that office.

    Beam allows workers to have virtual meetings without making the trip, but it requires navigating robots through a PC mouse or keyboard. Some flaws to be considered are internet connection, charging these robots, how far they can go to still be in service of being controlled, and the fact that it has to return back to a base station before the user can hang up. This technology is not always as reliable as a person just physically going to meet another co-worker to have their meeting. Companies do not have to pay for one employee to walk across the office to have a meeting with another. Between installing Beam, training employees how to maneuver the systems, and maintenance expenses, this technology does not necessarily pay off. In addition to these flaws, this technology is also very expensive in comparison to its competitors.

    I do not believe that November will be early enough for the launch of this invention. According to Kevin C. Tofel’s, “How to get a telepresence robot without NASA’s budget,” there are other options other than Beam that are much less expensive and already on the market or are on their way. These options allow consumers with all different budgets to virtually be in two places at once by using systems similar to NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover. The rover that costs 2.5 billion dollars has been replicated in simpler ways to make a similar system for every budget. There is the QB robot from Anybots that runs at $9,700 that can be used as a virtual greeter or for students who can’t attend class due to a sickness. There is the “Double” robot which Colleen mentioned, and there is also a new project that is close to being funded that only costs $299 called Botiful. Botiful uses an Android phone for the robot’s eyes and ears and navigates by a three wheel stand. Although this project is still being funded, it is close to reaching its monetary goal and is on its way to the market. Inventions like these and Beam are useful in some instances; however, for Beam’s price, I do not believe the benefits outweigh the costs.

  3. I believe that telepresence is a great asset to businesses and necessary in today’s tough economy. It is impractical for a company to spend money sending an employee across the world simply to attend a meeting or two when they can simply do some form of video conferencing and participate from the comfort of the employee’s office.

    In my opinion, I think that Beam is an impractical choice for telepresence. The $16,000 price tag is outrageous when a company can just buy the Double Robotics product for a fraction of the cost when they do essentially the same task. Not all companies required robotic telepresence. For business that only need telepresence for sit down meetings, I don’t believe that a robot is necessary. They simply need a stationary webcam. However, I do think that business with large warehouses can benefit from robotic telepresence because they need more mobility to oversee production. Also, managers can benefit from robotic telepresence because they can “physically” check up on their employers when they aren’t in the office by rolling into their offices. If businesses require more hands on conferencing, I think robotic telepresence can greatly benefit them.

    There are some flaws about Beam that I believe can be improved. The fact that the only way to end a call on the Beam is to return to the base station is a waste of time. If the office or warehouse is large and since the robot moves at the rate of a real human, it would take forever to hang up the conference call. Another thing to consider is the way the robot is maneuvered. How durable is it? If the controller somehow loses control or miscalculates a turn and runs into a wall, will it cause significant damage? Maybe sensors can be incorporated to prevent Beam from running into obstacles. Since Beam is so expensive, it is important to consider how sturdy it is. How reliable is Beam’s Wi-Fi? What if the controller moves Beam into an area of the warehouse that does not get good signal and loses connection. Will the robot get stranded there?

    Overall, I think that Beam offers some benefits to certain companies, but there are still flaws that don’t justify the hefty price tag. Until these flaws are improved, I would opt for the more affordable version or just stick to a simple webcam.

  4. Colleen I appreciate your article on Beam, as well as all of the comments that other people have made in regard to telepresence and your critique. The biggest issue that I have with the way technology has been implemented in the world is that it often times takes away the human element. What I mean by this is that technology has continued to take away in-person contact throughout its development; face-to-face conversations became phone calls, phone calls became emails and text messages, and so forth. Admittedly this progression has been highly necessary as the business world has gone international, but closing a deal without a handshake is disheartening to me. Skype and other video conference methods began to reverse technology’s effect of limiting direct human contact. Beam and telepresence are a huge step in the right direction of bringing the human element back into business.
    Beam and other telepresence applications outstrip Skype in ways that I would not have known were possible had it not been for our information systems class as well as this blog entry. Skype was a wonderful development in reversing what previous technology has done in terms of taking the human element out of the equation, but telepresence completely revolutionizes what technology has meant. In my mind technology had been moving away from human interaction, and was starting to double back on itself with such applications as Skype. Telepresence was a huge step in technology’s trip back to making humans feel as close to one another as possible without physically being together. Allowing a businessman to talk with a full human projection of someone located half a world away is without a doubt incredible. That full human projection being able to move to see what is going on in the room hundreds of miles away is downright amazing. With the way that technology is advancing it will only be a matter of time before we cannot tell the difference between a human who is really in the room and one who isn't.