Today, Suitable Technologies (the Willow Garage spinout that originally commercialized the Texai telepresence robots) is announcing a new ultrahigh-end telepresence robot, the BeamPro 2. The BP2, as it is now known to lazy typists like myself, is a significant upgrade to the BeamPro, with a substantive redesign and a bunch of new features to arguably make it the most capable telepresence robot you can buy.
Here's all the new stuff, straight from the press release:
Suitable Technologies Inc., creator of the industry-leading Beam family of telepresence systems, today announced the addition of the BeamPro 2. This next-generation device offers advanced features that revolutionize communication within organizations.
The BeamPro 2 can easily and safely maneuver in crowded spaces with the latest in navigation technology. Optional extra sensors combined with the ability to spin in place allows users to drive a BeamPro 2 through tight spaces that can be found in hospitals, specialty-care facilities, manufacturing floors, museums and classrooms.
With the largest, multi-touch HD video screen on the market and physical capability for vertical screen height adjustment, the user can interact face-to-face with a much more human quality. High-quality super-wide angle cameras provide clear views of remote surroundings and enable an easier user experience that simplifies tasks such as viewing documentation on a table, inspecting components on a manufacturing line, or monitoring patient readings in any care setting. Advanced speakers and microphone array provide full, rich audio for interacting and communicating with on-site colleagues.
Key features include:
- Low-glare, Gorilla Glass 24-inch LCD display
- Multi-touch capability
- Dynamic vertical height adjustment of 10 inches
- Ambient light sensors to adjust display to surrounding light
- Two super-wide 12MP cameras streaming in full HD with 12x digital zoom
- Multiple 3D depth cameras
- Three speakers to provide a wider frequency range for lifelike sound
- Fully digital microphone array featuring echo cancellation
- Additional sensors for obstacle detection
- Six wheels allowing stable movement and rotation in place
“BeamPro 2 has a modular mobile platform design, so it can be used as a reliable communication device for Beam telepresence meetings, as well as a platform for add-on accessories, which can enhance concepts such as virtual training, or remote patient care,” said Bo Preising, Chief Innovation Officer of Suitable Technologies. “This is our newest product designed with the best audio, video, and mobility technology available. BeamPro 2 is the most advanced telepresence device on the market and it provides richer human interaction.”
For more details, Bo Preising answered a few questions for us over email.
IEEE Spectrum: What kind of feedback did you get from BeamPro customers that influenced the design of the BeamPro 2?
Bo Preising: Multiple large customers have asked for the ability to raise and lower the display for better eye-eye contact. We’ve also added safety sensors for situations where there are delicate things in the environment (museums, healthcare, etc.) due to requests from customers. Some large customers have also asked for better camera technology— the ability to pan, tilt, and zoom, and some large customers have asked for laser pointer pan/tilt capability. As such, we’ve designed BeamPro 2 as a modular product with the capability to add or exchange new technologies without further engineering.
Can you describe what you mean by "modular mobile platform”? What are some examples of accessories that can be added to the BeamPro 2?
The original Beam products were designed to just be super reliable as robotic telepresence. The new BP2 device is designed to be a modular mobile platform that can provide telepresence as well as other technologies to the user. For example, depth cameras have been added for 3D viewing and safety along with the option to add LIDAR, pan/tilt/zoom cameras, pan/tilt laser pointers, or many other sensors to this device. We have thought through many ideas on how to add on accessories and have the connections, power, and platform to do so. This will allow us to explore areas outside normal telepresence.
How are the multiple 3D depth cameras used? What kinds of autonomy (or assistive autonomy) does BeamPro 2 have?
There are two 3D cameras, one in the front and one in the back, that allow for calibration of the system so the Beam knows where it is in its space. The front camera also has 120-degree total vertical tilt for obstacle avoidance. When backing up, the back camera helps with obstacle avoidance as well. The BP2 is still meant to be tele-operated. We find that having the user move the device around helps keep them engaged in the remote environment and thus allows the device to be perceived as the user more readily by the “locals,” or people who interact with the device.
What's still weird to me is how little autonomy BP2 has considering the sensors that it comes with. I understand Bo's point about keeping people engaged, but in my experience, something like automatic person following would be very useful to allow more of a focus on the conversation rather than the driving (although automatic obstacle avoidance may help with that significantly). Perhaps the sensors are there also to help enable some of those “modular mobile platform” use cases in “areas outside normal telepresence.” We'll see.
We've been told that “pricing information will be available in the next few months,” but for context, the (now old and busted I guess) BeamPro costs $15k, and that's without the optional lidar and camera upgrades. Our guess is that the BeamPro2 will be significantly more expensive, but still within a range that lets Suitable make a case that it will save companies money by making executive travel unnecessary. I say executive, because shuttling around those of us who fly in steerage is cheap enough that it's just not worth it to use a robot like either of the pro-class Beams—especially since it's less effective than being there in person.
And that brings up my last concern about BP2, and telepresence in general: At some point (and BP2 may already have passed that point), improvements to hardware give you diminishing returns on the telepresence experience. Is BP2, with its big screen, fancy cameras, and audio, going to help users (on both ends) communicate with each other more effectively? Sure it is. But how much more effectively, relative to the cost? And what's the next step for two-way telepresence?
I have no doubt that Suitable is thinking about all of this stuff, and I'm idly wondering if they're starting to position themselves as more of a remote mobile platform, sort of like iRobot's AVA 500, which incidentally is now part of a spinoff called Ava Robotics. We should find out over the next year or so, as BeamPro 2 goes on sale this summer.
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.