The Beam+: a high-quality, smooth ride

Yesterday afternoon I took a Beam+ telepresence robot for a spin as Dan from Suitable Technologies talked me through its capabilities and graciously fielded my many questions. Before I launch into describing my experience driving the robot, I should mention that in preparation for the test drive, another company employee, Kinsley, contacted me to run a quick test ensuring that my computer was up to the task. I appreciated that extra step on the company's part to make sure that my test drive went smoothly. This gave me an early indication that Suitable Technologies isn't just another startup scrambling to get its product on the market, but has worked with enough clientele to develop a streamlined demo process. Additionally, theirs is the first company website I've seen that displays a photo of a U. S. president (currently President Obama) using one of their products.

The Beam+ is a no-nonsense, well-designed telepresence robot. Users can maneuver it using either a mouse or the arrow keys on a computer keyboard (I found the arrow keys to be easiest), and can adjust the speed via a slider in the application window. For a little extra speed, hold down the shift key while moving the robot (whether by arrow key or mouse). The Beam+ can also pivot in either direction, useful for maneuvering in tight spaces. One key feature that increases the robot's cost but also contributes to a smooth user experience is its built-in 10" LCD flat-panel monitor, which carries two HDR cameras and four directional microphones (including one in the rear), heightening users' feeling of being "present" in the remote location. On my end, this meant that I had a crystal clear straight-ahead view through the main camera and excellent audio throughout the test drive. I had a similarly clear view through the second camera, which, because the Beam+ doesn't have proximity sensors, shows the base of the robot to assist users in avoiding obstacles. The second camera also aids those users who choose to steer with a mouse: when you hover your mouse point above the window with the base view, you'll see parallel "tracks" angling from the robot's base to wherever your pointer is, indicating where the Beam+ will move when you click and hold the mouse button.

Further features allow users to share their screens with viewers on the other end, mute sound on either end of the call, increase the view to full-screen, and pause for up to fifteen minutes without disconnecting the call (should nature, or some other imminent need, intervene). Holding the period key brings up a window displaying the user's connection speed. The monitor includes a USB 2.0 port (which can accept a 4G stick to enhance the robot's operational range if necessary), and also allows you to zoom the main camera up to 2.0x. Although the Beam+ doesn't stop when it contacts an obstacle, its top travel speed is about 0.5 mph, so any accidental collisions are unlikely to be catastrophic. Also--and Dan demonstrated this for me--the Beam+ can be tilted to nearly 45 degrees off-base and will still right itself. Finally, when you're done with a call and have maneuvered the robot near its charging dock, you can simply hold "P" to activate the auto-navigation parking feature.

Overall, I felt the Beam+ was very user-friendly and offered a very smooth telepresence experience suitable for a wide variety of possible uses. The Beam+ appears to be well-made and well-conceived, and Suitable Technologies also seems to be well organized and to have a good understanding of how to attract and interact with clients. If you're in the market for a reliable, high-quality telepresence robot, I have no hesitation in recommending you buy the Beam+.

Pros: - Smooth interface with great call quality
- Intuitive and straight-forward controls
- Physically stable and well-designed
- Very secure calls
- Very reliable, as demonstrated not only by the confidence of larger clients (such as Google, which has over 50), but by Suitable Technologies' willingness to entirely remotely staff a store via Beam+ robots. If I'm ever in Palo Alto, a visit to that store (on University Avenue) is going to be on my to-do list.

Cons: - No proximity sensors, although the Beam+ compensates for this through the directional mics, the base-view HDR camera, and the modest top movement speed.
- The relatively short 2 hour battery life

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