Most of us have gone into a store or restaurant in which the nametags worn by employees identified their hometowns. It’s a friendly touch.
But this week, for the first time, I went into a store in which the members of the sales staff weren’t only identified by their hometowns, they were actually working from their hometowns, via telepresence robots. Their names and locations appeared on their screens, and on the day I visited there were employees based in at least three different states.
Other than that, my visit to the Beam store at 425 University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto seemed like a completely ordinary retail experience. It was Monday—a generally slow day in this area—and there were few customers, so two of the staff members, Ben Day
from in Brooklyn and Alexa Inga in Clayton, Calif.—or actually their robots—were standing just outside the front of the store, idly chatting.
“We like to go outside,” said Inga. “It gets claustrophobic in the store.” When traffic picked up, they went inside, and were joined by another staff member in Honolulu, Hawaii. When I identified myself as a journalist, Erin Rapacki, the head of marketing, showed up in moments—via robot, of course.
The Beam Remote Presence System, from Scott Hassan’s Suitable Technologies, a spinoff of Willow Garage, has a wheeled base and two posts that support a screen, which is a bit bigger than a person’s head. It includes multiple Wi-Fi radios, microphones, and cameras (some models also have a 4G radio). It is driven via client software, installed on the pilot’s computer. The current model, the BeamPro, lists at US $20,000, but a $2000 consumer version, the Beam+, is due to join its larger brethren in a matter of weeks. And yes, I’m calling them robots for lack of a better term, because they sure seem like them, but they are not autonomous, they are driven by their users.
A customer interacts with a BeamPro at Suitable Technologies’ Palo Alto store.Photo: Tekla Perry
Opened on 31 October, this is the only Beam store currently in existence. It doesn’t actually conduct sales on the spot; the site is too small to keep much inventory on hand, and the company doubts that a $20,000 product would be an impulse buy that would need to be wrapped up on site. Instead, it’s designed to get people familiar with the product. Besides chatting with remote salespeople, store visitors can “get inside” a Beam and drive it around the company’s Kansas City office, or, if they ask nicely, they can set up a time to have a get together at the store with remote friends or colleagues.
So far, the store has hosted groups with people “beaming” in from Finland and France, and is planning a holiday event for some local community members to connect with remote colleagues. And the company is making it possible for people who already own or lease a Beam to hang out in downtown Palo Alto, or drop by to listen to guest speakers.
Why here? Rapacki told me that being on University Avenue in Palo Alto puts the systems in front of “a lot of technologically forward thinking people; a lot of people who run companies, who have access to budgets, and have busy lives, so need to be in two places at once” on a regular basis. “Telepresence doesn’t replace travel,” she said, adding that it’s for people who travel a lot who want to check in on things back at headquarters.
I watched passersby politely respond when greeted by a Beam “pilot,” and saw several customers wander in and get into long discussions via telepresence, or be escorted to a station and launched into a hands-on demo on driving one of the robots. It all seemed to be going quite smoothly. But I had to wonder, wasn’t there a man behind the curtain, somewhere, just in case something went awry? Absolutely not, Ben Day, the Brooklyn-based Beam pilot, told me. So, I asked, couldn’t someone just grab one of these expensive gadgets and walk off with it?
“They’d have a really hard time, because [the robots] weigh about 92 pounds, so they wouldn’t make it very far,” Day said. If someone did get away with the hardware, Day would still be in control remotely, and would, he says, be able to “beam” into the device and tell whoever he saw to take it back to the store. Or he could call the police and say “I’m being stolen!”
But who opens the store up in the morning and closes it at night? Telepresence robots, after all, don’t have hands.
Not a problem, Rapacki told me. “The doors unlock remotely.” I should have guessed.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.