At CES last week, we ventured deep inside Suitable Technologies booth to a secret room to meet their latest telepresence
robot platform. It's called the Beam+, and while it does just about everything that the original Beam can do, this new Beam isn't designed for offices or conference settings—it was created to be used at home. An advanced robotic system for people's homes that is not a vacuum cleaner is pretty amazing news, but here's another reason to be excited: the first thousand Beam+ units are up for pre-order for the staggeringly low price of just US $995.
Beam+ (you can pronounce it "Beam Plus") is the little brother of the original Beam, now called the Beam Pro. In terms of functionality, both Beams are very similar: they've got a big camera, big screen, big speakers, an intuitive software interface, and the ability to drive around anywhere there aren't stairs. Provided you've got a halfway decent Wi-Fi connection, you'll get two-way streaming audio and video from anywhere in the world. It's worth mentioning that Beam+ is slightly shorter than the Beam Pro, but that shouldn't be a problem because Beam+ users will be interacting with people in home environments, where they're liking to be sitting down.
The biggest piece of news is, of course, the price. The first 1,000 Beam+ units are up for grabs (as of right now) for just $995 and will start shipping in the summer. After the first run is sold out, the full price will be $1,995, which, if we're honest, is still relatively inexpensive. In terms of sheer price, this puts Beam+ at a pronounced advantage over existing telepresence systems. For example, a Double will run you $2,500 plus an iPad ($400); an Anybots QB will set you back $9,700; and the Vgo is somewhere around $5,000.
Obviously, it's not entirely fair to just compare these robots on price. At the same time, however, telepresence robots are designed to do one thing: telepresence. All of these robots can perform that task, albeit in different ways and with different designs, but fundamentally, what the end-user cares about are two things: can it be used to communicate effectively, and can it be driven around safely? If all of these systems fulfill those basic needs, then arguably, what matters most after that is how much the thing costs, which gives Beam+ a kind of gigantic advantage, at least when it comes to the 1,000 available pre-orders.
As far as the bells and whistles go, Beam+ is no slouch there, either. With a 10-inch LCD screen (larger than other robots), an HDR camera plus a dedicated navigation camera, and a four-microphone array, the Beam+ should offer an excellent telepresence experience. Using the same basic software as the Beam Pro, it's a cinch to navigate. Interestingly, there are no buttons anywhere on the system: you can't directly turn it on or off even if you wanted to. Instead, it's all controlled remotely, via the web interface, and it just sleeps on its charging dock until you log into it.
The most obvious question is how the Beam+ is so darn cheap. We know a few things about the differences between the Beam+ and the Beam Pro that help explain the cost difference: for example, the Beam+ doesn't include the dual radios that let the Beam Pro jump seamlessly between multiple access points. The thinking was that this would be unnecessary, because most home users just have one single router. Also, component costs have come down significantly since the introduction of the Beam Pro, and the Beam+ has been able to leverage that.
Even so, $1,000 looks crazy cheap. This is a physically large robot, with motors, cameras, display, computer, and a bunch of other components. Even at the retail price of $2,000, we wonder if there'll be much of a profit margin for Suitable. It's possible that Suitable might be trying to completely take over the telepresence market by being very aggressive in terms of pricing. In fact, we know that they have big plans to offer their systems as a service, as opposed to just a product. At RoboBusiness last year, Beam Pros provided a great way for people who couldn't make it to the conference to spend a few hours networking on the show floor. And according to Suitable CEO Scott Hassan, the right way to do a show like CES is with 10,000 Beams. That's a quote, not a typo.
At this point, we're just going to have to wait and see how the introduction of the Beam+ changes the market for telepresence systems. It seems like the most competitive option right now, for sure, but will the low price be enough to convince people that they need or want a dedicated telepresence platform in their home? Suitable seems to think so, and they're absolutely determined to make it happen. Would you consider buying one?
Evan Ackerman is the senior writer for IEEE Spectrum’s award-winning robotics blog, Automaton. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and emerging technology, covering conferences and events on every single continent except Africa, Antarctica, Australia, and South America (although he remains optimistic). In addition to Spectrum, Evan’s work has appeared in a variety of other online publications including Gizmodo and Slate, and you may have heard him on NPR’s Science Friday or the BBC World Service if you were listening at just the right time. Evan has an undergraduate degree in Martian geology, which he almost never gets to use, and still wants to be an astronaut when he grows up. In his spare time, he enjoys scuba diving, rehabilitating injured raptors, and playing bagpipes excellently.