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Linux-powered telepresence robot gets personal

Jan 15, 2014  |  Rick Lehrbaum

[Updated 10:40AM] — Suitable Technologies is accepting 1,000 pre-orders at $995 for Beam+, a smaller, less costly, consumer model of its Linux-powered “Beam” mobile telepresence robot.

The remotely-piloted Beam+ bot, which can be controlled via a WiFi, runs low-latency Skype-like video conferencing software on top of a Ubuntu-based embedded Linux OS. The original Beam model was introduced about two years ago, and currently starts at $16,000 (not including charging dock). The new Beam+ consumer model will be sold for about $2,000 (including charging dock) after all the 1,000 specially priced pre-order units have been sold.

Beam was created to enable individuals to “travel instantly to remote locations, using video conferencing on a mobile platform,” says the company. The initial Beam model targets companies and organizations, in order to improve the efficiency of telecommuting and reduce the need for costly and time-consuming business travel. The idea is to provide a “real, physical sense of presence… that can make professionals in many fields more productive and efficient, while also eliminating travel costs,” says the company. Because you’re not “stuck to a wall or desk,” Beam becomes “your physical presence anywhere in the world, with the freedom to move and interact with people as if you were there.”

In contrast, Beam+ is aimed at home users, is smaller than the original Beam, and offers scaled-back specs.



Beam (left) vs. Beam+ (right pair)
(click images to enlarge)

“Beam+ is ideal for those who are away from home or live far away from their friends and family,” explains Suitable Technologies. “Simply set up Beam+ at home, or in your desired location and beam in from anywhere to instantly see, hear and connect with those you care about.”

 
Test-driving a Beam

To learn more about the new Beam+, I used a standard Beam to attend a meeting at Suitable Technologies where I was given an opportunity to witness one of the new Beam+ prototypes in action. You can see the relative sizes of the two Beam bots in the photo below, which shows the two of us side-by-side.



Beam meets Beam+ (left); Beam+ dimensions (right)
(click images to enlarge)

The highlight of my Suitable Technologies virtual visit was when CEO Scott Hassan invited me to follow him into the hardware lab to see where the Beams are cooked…


Beaming into the Suitable Technologies lab
(click images to enlarge)

Hassan said the Beam+ provides the same capabilities as Beam, but with a few scaled-back specs. The key differences are listed below.
  • Shorter — 53 inches tall, vs. 62 for Beam
  • Lighter — about half of Beam’s 95 lbs
  • Reduced battery life — up to 2 hours active use, vs. 8 for Beam
  • Audio output not as loud
  • Fewer mics in mic array; omits noise cancellation
  • Improved camera — Beam+ has a high dynamic range (HDR) navigational camera, which exceeds the specs of the current standard Beam (it will be added to Beam later)
  • Smaller LCD display — 10 inches, vs. 17 for Beam
  • Lacks the Beam’s 4G/LTE cellular communications
  • Various mechanical simplifications and cost reductions
    Note: Beam+ mechanical specs listed above are based on the latest prototype, and may differ when the product reaches production.

Like the original Beam, Beam+ features a “human walking speed” and dual cameras, for both navigational and overhead views of the environment.

Additionally, the Beam+ contains the same embedded computer components as the Beam. Its embedded computer platform consists of an Intel processor running a customized Ubuntu 12.04-based Linux OS, along with extensive Suitable Technologies application software. Hassan describes Beam’s application software as “a custom video conferencing solution made specifically for a movable remote presence system. It is designed to be the lowest latency way to communicate from a distance.”

I found the Beam a pleasure to navigate after just moments at the controls. But trust me: without that handy downward-looking camera, I could easily have caused lots of damage to the environment!

Summary of Beam+ specifications

Suitable Technologies currently lists these specs for the Beam+ device:

  • Battery life — 2 hours of call time, 4 hours to charge
  • Display — 10-inch LCD flat-panel
  • Built-in cameras — two 640×480 HDR cameras; 30 fps video
  • Audio — 4-microphone array; powerful audio amplifier
  • Connectivity — dual-band 2.4GHz/5GHz WiFi

 
Beam+ demo video

An amusing Beam+ demonstration video, made by Suitable Technologies, appears below. Enjoy!



Beam+ demonstration video

 
Further information

Further details about the new Beam+ telepresence robot is available at Suitable Technologies’s Beam+ product page. The first 1,000 Beam+ robots are currently available for pre-order from the company’s website, here, at the introductory price of $995. Thereafter, the Beam+’s normal retail price will be $1,995, says the company. Beam+ is expected to ship to U.S. customers this summer.
 

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