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Linux-powered telepresence bot gets a boost

Aug 22, 2013  |  Rick Lehrbaum
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Suitable Technologies has absorbed a majority of the employees of Willow Garage, the research lab that created Texai technology central to Suitable Tech’s “Beam” mobile telepresence robot. The remotely-piloted Beam bot, which can be controlled via a WiFi or 4G LTE cellular connection, runs Robot Operating System plus low-latency Skype-like video conferencing software on top of an Ubuntu-based embedded OS.

Beam was created to enable individuals to “travel instantly to remote locations, using video conferencing on a mobile platform,” says the company. The concept was to provide a “real, physical sense of presence … that can make professionals in many fields more productive and efficient, while also eliminating travel costs.” 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.”

The photos below show Beam functioning in a simulated typical target environment.





Beam is just another member of the team
(click images to enlarge)

 

Beam’s overall architecture encompasses three components, dubbed the Remote Presence System (RPS):

  • Beam Remote Presence Device (RPD)
  • Beam Client Software (Client)
  • Beam Docking Station (Dock)

Like Willow Garage’s Texai technology from which it is derived, Beam leverages embedded software from the open source Robot Operating System (ROS) framework. ROS is running on a customized version of Ubuntu 12.04, which in turn is hosted on an embedded computer based on an Intel Core i3 processor, says Scott Hassan, Suitable Tech’s founder and CEO. The robot can be controlled via either a WiFi or cellular 4G LTE connection,

Beam’s key specs include:

  • Physical — 62 inches tall, 95 pounds weight
  • Screen — 17-inch, 3:4 aspect ratio screen provides life-size face rendering
  • Battery power — up to 8 hours active use
  • Speed — human walking speed (1.5 meters/sec)
  • Dual cameras — overhead and navigational
  • High definition six-microphone array
  • High fidelity speaker
  • Two-wheeled differential steering with stabilizing casters
  • Embedded processor — Intel Core i3
  • Embedded software — Ubuntu Linux; Robot Operating System

 

Four 2.4/5 GHz radios supported by proprietary wireless software seemlessly handle transitions between WiFi access points, according to the company. The robot also has two high-def cameras that provide a 170-degree wide field of view, both vertically and horizontally. Additionally, a six-microphone beam-forming array offers human-like audio performance, reduces background noise, and cancels echoes; and a sophisticated speaker system allows the Beam pilot’s voice to be heard despite noisy environments. Finally, LED lamps enable operation in low light.

Beam uses custom video conferencing software developed specifically for use in a movable remote presence system, adds Hassan. The video chat solution was designed to be the lowest latency way to communicate from a distance.

Another interesting aspect of Beam’s design is that its cameras are positioned such that you feel like you’re actually present within the remote location, says the company. In particular, they’re not located down at the robot’s base where your feet would be. Additionally, Beam is said to be easy to drive, and implements motion that simulates normal walking.

The Beam Client app, which is available for both Windows 7 and Mac OS X, connects to the Beam RPD and provides integrated controls for driving, video, and audio. Using the Client app, the Beam pilot can maneuver the RPD directly into the Beam Dock to recharge its batteries, without requiring local intervention.

According to Suitable Tech, Beam also adheres to these operational imperatives, which are inherited from the Texai project:

  • Reciprocity of vision — “If I see you, you must see me.” Since Beam is designed to be a remote presence system (RPS), it’s built to only support video transport when the pilot is available to the participant. If the pilot does not appear, Beam automatically disconnects. Communication is two-way, not one-way as in most surveillance systems. Rich communication is only effective in a two-way, real-time audio/video experience.
  • Ensuring private communication — No onboard recording of audio/video. If two people are in the same room, they both have reasonable expectations of having a private conversation with no recording devices — unless implicitly asked. Because Beam needs to preserve this implicit contract, it does not support audio or video recording between the pilot and participants.
  • Transparency of technology — The pilot is the focus. While many solutions discuss the impressive features of their systems, the technology’s focus is on enhancing the pilot’s presence. Beam assists the pilot in being present in the remote conversation, while reducing the robot’s technology footprint. Beam’s technology should assist in communication, and therefore must fade away into the background — leaving the pilot to be present in the conversation.
  • Respect the social norms — Beam is the pilot in the remote location. While Beam and other RPS players look somewhat technical, the company recommends maintaining the same social norms an individual has in person when they are in Beam form. Just as no one wishes to be jostled about by some external party, pushing a Beam when a pilot is present represents a similar disrespect. Instead, respect a Beam’s personal space as you would any other individual.

The video below demonstrates Beam’s telepresence capabilities. Watch for what happens when two Beams unexpectedly pass each other in a hallway!



Beam demonstration video

 

Willow Garage talent acquisition

“I am excited to bring together the teams of Willow Garage and Suitable Technologies to provide the most advanced remote presence technology to people around the world,” stated Hassan, who founded both Willow Garage and Suitable Technologies. “By increasing resources in research and development, production and customer support, Suitable Technologies is positioned to successfully serve demands for Beam remote presence technology.”

Willow Garage will continue to support customers of its PR2 personal robotics platform and sell its remaining stock of PR2 systems, Hassan added.

The Beam Remote Presence System was introduced in Q4 of 2012, priced from $16,000. Further information is available on the company’s website. Information on Willow Garage’s Texai technology is available here.
 

[Portions of this article were extracted from an earlier report by DeviceGuru.com, our sibling site.]
 

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