Are Telepresence Robots Becoming the Norm for Companies With Work-at-Home Employees?

Not too long ago, employees from various companies and institutions were able to perform their jobs from the comfort of their own homes. Typically this was accomplished with a combination of devices such as a PC, webcam, and phone to complete their tasks. However, it was a rare few who experienced that world.

Things have changed since then. With advances in mobile communications and robotics, employees (and even students) can now use a unique form of telepresence that lets them work from home while maintaining a physical presence in the workplace. Wireless and robotic tech combined, not only give both employers and employees the ability to perform tasks, but also give co-workers the feeling that they're actually at work with one another. The last five years have truly brought the perspective of using robots in both the workplace and learning institutions.

This trend looks to gain even more momentum. Although there are about a dozen or so telepresence robotic manufacturers at this time, the actual number of businesses or institutions that employ them is sparse (as most are unsure of the payoffs associated with using the robots, and they can be costly). But there have been a few notable instances where the bots have been used.

Click the image below to see them.

The most recent instance that made headlines was the development and use of the Beam RPD by engineer Dallas Goecker, who uses the telepresence robot made by Willow Garage offshoot Suitable Technologies to attend work and meetings from his home more than 2,300 miles away from the office. The Beam RPD (Remote Presence Device) stands at 5-feet 2-inches tall and is equipped with a 17-inch screen that projects the user's face to help facilitate interaction with others.

The RPD uses two wide-angle HD cameras that allow for full situational awareness (including navigation) and feeds the video/images back to whoever is in control of the unit (Beam can have multiple users take advantage of the system). Six microphones, with noise and echo cancellation, allow every sound or voice to be heard from multiple locations, which helps provide an atmosphere of actually being in that particular area interacting with others. The bot also comes equipped with a speaker and two dual-band WiFi radios that help prevent signal loss while roaming. It has a top speed of 3mph and recharges in a floor-positioned dock without the need to plug the RPD into a physical socket.

The Beam RPD uses the Beam Pilot Software Client, which allows users to control the bot using a mouse and keyboard and works with both the latest Windows and Mac OSs. The only downside to using the Beam is the cost: $16,000 for the base platform. But, considering the cost of Goecker's daily commute, the price may be a bargain.

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