Visceral Negative Reaction to Suitable Technologies' New "Beam" Robot

Battle of the BEAM robots

Today, Suitable Technologies announced the "Beam Remote Presence System" -- aka, Beam telepresence robot.  You can see the press announcement below, and find plenty of commentary elsewhere online (eg. about how the $16k price tag compares to competitors).  Normally, I'd write a similar reaction piece.  But instead, I'm going to violate two of my personal rules: I'm going to write a negative piece on Hizook, and I'm going to do it while somewhat mad.  Suitable, what were you thinking?!?  BEAM robots have been around since the 1990's.  Mark Tilden's patent for super-simple analog "nervous nets" to build (often solar powered) "Braitenberg vehicles" dates back to 1992.  They have a Wikipedia page; there are several in-print books; there are entire communities and companies built around them.  They're the reason I learned electronics and got into robotics as a child.  To have the name subverted in this way is sickening.  Did no one at Suitable run a simple Google search?!   Furthermore, there is no way that "beam" should be eligible for a trademark -- there's too much existing prior use in robotics.

 

Update 9/26/2012: Some trusted friends tell me I might be a little oversensitive on this one.  I'm open to that possibility (I've been awake for 23 hours!).  But... naming is important and often contested -- especially in CompSci circles (eg. programming language names).  I'm not in the least worried that people will mistake "BEAM robots" for Suitable's "Beam robot" -- these robots have very different looks and functions.  But right now, it bothers me that an iconic type of robot that's been established for >20 years has had its name co-opted for other purposes.  Are there seriously no other brand names that could've worked?  Anyway... feel free to disagree with me in the comments -- I may very well disagree with myself after a solid night of sleep.

 

For anyone who is unfamiliar with BEAM robots, I've included a (slightly-modified) Google image montage below.  A regular Google search for "beam robot" returns 9.8 Million results, and a Google Image search returns 2.7 Million results. 

 

I've probably made a few dozen BEAM robots in my time.  I've built walkers, photovores, photopoppers, rollers, trimets (symets), and pummers.  I can draw most types of solar engines (eg. FLED, 1381, and Miller-type) on demand.  Some of my most fond memories with my late grandfather are our freeforming solder sessions out in his farmhouse garage.  

Needless to say... my reaction to seeing "Beam" used as a commercial robot's name is visceral and negative.  I'm sure I won't be alone.  Branding fail.

 

 

Suitable Technologies' "Remote Presence System" (RPS)

 

Enough ranting.  I do think the new robot has some redeeming qualities.  I'm a fan of (what appears to be) the statically-stable mobile base.  I actually think that's a pretty important practical consideration.  I also like the charging station and the integrated screen.  Furthermore, the video (below) briefly shows the UI.  You'll notice the nice downward-facing fisheye camera.  Some time ago, I had a chance to drive a Texai (the Willow Garage predecessor to Beam), and that viewpoint was especially useful for tight-quarters maneuvering (eg. in crowds).  It also has a suite of four wireless radios -- absolutely crucial to maintain always-on connectivity.

Beam Telepresence Robot from Suitable Technologies  Beam Telepresence Robot from Suitable Technologies  Beam Telepresence Robot from Suitable Technologies

 

Despite the branding gaffe, I have a lot of confidence in Scott Hassan (and the Suitable team).  Between Willow Garage, ROS, PR2, Texai, and the handfull of spinoffs, Scott has done some amazing things to advance the state of robotics.

 

 

"Suitable Technologies Introduces Beam Remote Presence System"

 

There are a lot of details in the official press release:

PALO ALTO, CA – September 26, 2012 – Suitable Technologies today introduced Beam Remote Presence System (RPS).  Suitable designed Beam to enable individuals to travel instantly to remote locations using videoconferencing on a mobile platform.  Beam allows people to be more productive and efficient by providing a real physical sense of presence, while eliminating travel costs.

The Beam Remote Presence System

The Beam Remote Presence System consists of three components: the Beam Remote Presence Device (RPD), the Beam Client Software (Client) and the Beam Docking Station (Dock). The 'pilot' of a Beam RPD will use the RPD to communicate with 'locals' at a work setting.

The Beam RPD is your physical presence in the world. It stands at 62” tall, weighs 95 pounds, and has a 17" screen, enabling the pilot’s face to be seen at human size. The battery can power the Beam RPD for up to eight hours of active use and its motors can reach human walking speed (1.5 meters per second). Robust and seamless wireless connectivity is provided by 4 wireless radios (2.4/5 GHz) and proprietary software that can smoothly handle transitions between access points. The Beam RPD also has two high definition cameras to provide a 170 degree wide field of view, both vertically and horizontally; a six-microphone beam forming array for human-like audio performance, background noise reduction, and echo cancellation; a sophisticated speaker system in order to be heard in noisy environments; and LED lamps to enable operation in low light.

The Beam Client connects to the Beam RPD and provides integrated controls for driving, video, and audio. The client is available for download as an installer on both Windows 7 and Mac OS X.

The third component is the Beam Dock, which charges the RPD's battery.  The pilot maneuvers the RPD directly into the dock without any local intervention to connect to the power source, thus the Beam RPS provides true independence.

"Technology has progressed to the point where physical location no longer has to dictate the presence of a person," according to Scott Hassan, CEO of Suitable Technologies.  "Audio and video conferencing have made good strides here, but our goal is to develop a system where an individual can travel instantly.  With Beam, profession doesn't have to dictate location."

With the growth in dispersed workforces, Suitable anticipates early adopters to come from those businesses with remote engineers or knowledge workers.  These individuals can then choose their employer based not on the address of the company headquarters, but on the physical location of their preference.  Professionally, individuals want the best, most exciting job possible, but professional goals and personal goals are often at odds when it comes to location.   With the introduction of Beam, attributes that are more personally appealing such as family, local schools, housing prices, or outdoor hobbies can be equally measured against the attributes of a particular career.

Suitable Technologies is a spinoff from the personal robotics company Willow Garage.  Beam began as a DIY initiative called Project Texai that was originally developed to improve the experience and productivity of Dallas Goecker, a remote employee of Willow Garage.  

Dallas, now a Senior Electrical Engineer at Suitable, lives in Indiana where he prefers the cost of living, school system, and family support network without having to sacrifice the face-to-face communication and ad hoc communication with his colleagues in Silicon Valley.

According to Dallas, "Living in Indiana and working in Silicon Valley via Beam isn't just the best of both worlds, it is both worlds."

 

 

Comments

As this is a rant regarding branding, I'll note that it's not a 'robot', its a remote presence device (RPD). Many years back I had trouble with this notion, partly because the Texai was built out of spare parts intended for a robot, but I've come to appreciate it as its own class of device. Engadget was able to do an entire post w/o describing it as a robot, and their article is better for it.  If it was a robot, we would be giving it names like Baxter or ASIMO to personify it, which could only be detrimental to a device that is meant to project *you*.

So, try not thinking of it as a robot, and see if your ill feelings subside.  Imagine it a car, or smartphone, or other device that shares the computation and sensors of a robot, and yet is not a robot.

Personally, I find 'Beam' to be a great choice.

—Ken

I just want to compliment the articles mosaic of google images of Beam bots :) I have never seen some of these and will need to run some google searches of my own now.

 

Thanks Travis

—Will C

@Ken, I tried this argument on him already and he didn't buy it!

—Evan

"To have the name subverted in this way is sickening." Isn't this a little extreme for a naming conflict?

Although, I don't buy the remote presence device moniker.  I can see it getting at least autonomous navigation if someone implements MCL.

—Hai

@Ken,

A robot by any other name is still a robot.  Calling it an "RPS" is just a marketing ploy.  Some people called a Roomba a "vacuum," but many still call it a "robot" too.

More seriously, there will almost certainly be autonomous operation of some kind: navigation, mapping, recharge docking, obstacle avoidance.  That would definitely put this in the realm of "robot" rather than simple R/C control.**   I've talked to probably 5-6 "RPS" companies.  All of them have plans to incorporate some level of autonomy -- from Double, VGo, iRobot, etc.  Unless you're trying to tell me that Suitable has no plans to keep pace with the competition... I'm inclined not to believe that statement.

** The latency alone probably takes Beam out of the R/C control realm.  Clearly it's more Curiosity (Mars rover) than direct-teleop.  Unless you're arguing that Curiosity is just an RPS on Mars...

 

@Hai,

You're probably right.  "Sickening" might be extreme.  Again... I'm probably overly sensitive to this one.  My internet moniker for the last 12-15 years has been "beambot" -- based on my passion for BEAM robots. 

—Travis Deyle

I'm with Travis on this one.  I was confused when I first heard about it, too, because I'm acquainted with BEAM robots and this is clearly not one.  It astonished me that a company would use a name that has been established within the robotics community over the last twenty years as referring to a specific robot design philosophy to sell a completely different product.

But then again, I've talked to several grad students lately who have never heard of Braitenberg, and I've seen a few talks that make me think that a remedial class in the History of Robotics would be in order.

—SigneR

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