When I told the organizers of the FutureMed conference that I couldn’t fly to San Diego, Calif., to attend their meeting early this month, I expected that to be the end of the conversation. Instead they came back with an unusual proposition: Since I couldn’t be there in the flesh, would I care to attend via robot?
It seemed that the conference would be hosting five of the Beam telepresence robots from Suitable Technologies, the robotics company that absorbed most of Willow Garage this summer. All I’d need to do is complete a training session and I’d be able to wheel a robot avatar through the exhibitor hall, although the main speaker hall would be inaccessible—the crush of conference-goers coming and going from the room would make that space too dangerous for the robot and the humans nearby.
My training session took all of 10 minutes. I was given an account that allowed me to log in to one of the Beams in Suitable Technologies’ Palo Alto headquarters, and a cheerful employee named Greg Hamilton instructed me in the basics of steering. It’s quite intuitive, and easily managed with a keyboard’s arrow keys. The Beam has two cameras, one facing forward and one pointed down at the floor to help the user avoid obstacles.
After a few minutes I rolled myself up to a mirror in the office lobby to check myself out. “You’re about 5'3", you weigh about 100 pounds, and you are gorgeous,” said the smooth-talking Hamilton. In the mirror, I saw that the Beam’s large screen displayed my face, using the video feed from the webcam in my laptop. Once I’d completed the training session, Hamilton extended his fist toward my front-facing camera. “We don’t shake hands, we just fist bump,” he said.
IEEE Spectrum has tried out telepresence robots before: In 2010, editor Erico Guizzosteered an Anybots QB around the magazine office for a week, trying out the system for remote work. His experience was fairly positive, as the bot allowed him to take part in meetings, initiate informal discussions between colleagues, and generally be a part of office life. The experience might have been unusually smooth, however, since Guizzo was trying out the bot at a technology magazine where colleagues expect such strangeness.
As I found out when I logged onto a Beam parked in the FutureMed conference hall, the experience can be challenging when people aren't accustomed to dealing with robots. The hall was crowded with attendees, many of whom assumed that there was no human presence within my machine, and felt no compunction about pushing past my Beam or blocking its way. A few people did react with surprise to my video face and smiled or waved, but in general I didn't make much progress. The Beam doesn’t contain any safeguards in terms of impact-avoidance—I was in full control of the machine, and if I tried to proceed it seemed likely that I’d ram into people, run over their toes, and in general cause havoc.
I decided to Beam back in to the room during a quieter hour, when most of the attendees were listening to a seminar. When I did, I had a very nice interaction with a woman who works for a startup called Wellpepper. The company sells an app to improve the doctor-patient relationship with reminders and advice for the patient, reports for the doctors, and direct communication channels. While I couldn’t take the woman's business card or snack on the candy that was set out in a dish, I’d say the experience was comparable to being there in person. Until, that is, I tried to roll on down a corridor and got stopped by a taped-down electrical cable that my bot-self couldn’t roll over.
To get a little more info about the Beam’s potential to revolutionize conference-going, I next logged back in to a Beam at Suitable Technologies headquarters to interview Scott Hassan, the company’s founder and CEO. During our interview (pictured in the photo above) he revealed his dream: He wants to have 10,000 Beams at the 2015 International CES, to allow another 100,000 people to attend the world’s preeminent consumer electronics show. “If you can’t dream it, you can’t do it,” he said cheerfully.
So should you try to attend a conference via a robot? At this point I’d say that you won’t get the same experience as being there in the flesh, but if you can’t attend in person and have a chance to try a telepresence robot, “beaming” yourself into a distant robotic body is worthwhile in itself. And as companies like Suitable improve their robots—and as people get used to them—robot avatars will become a common sight at any conference. Just watch those toes.
Eliza Strickland is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum, where she covers AI, biomedical engineering, and other topics. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.