I’ve never been to the technology orgy party that is the Consumer Electronics Show. Many of my Forbes colleagues are there, reporting on the latest, greatest, and creepiest gadgets in the pipeline. I decided to dip my toe in the water this year by attending in the most appropriate way possible for a trade show dedicated to futuristic technology: by telepresence robot.
Last week, I downloaded software from Suitable Technologies that allowed me to operate one of their $16,000 Beams, a motorized stand with 8 hours of battery life and a 17-inch flat screen that displays my face. It looks a lot like an iPad glued to a Segway. A two-minute video primer I had to watch before becoming the ghost in the machine explained the control system, warned me not to run over people’s feet, and forbade me from getting within 5 meters of stairs. This is no Boston Dynamics Big Dog suitable for rough terrain. Once I’m inside the machine, I’m in a digital wheelchair, limited to hitting the arrow buttons to turn and advance; I can hit shift to speed up to a maximum of 2 mph. Operating it reminds me of playing BC on the Commodore 64 when I was a kid.
At the show, I hear a few “whoas” as I zoom by a little too close to people. It’s the second day and it’s crowded. While some people stare at me, or stop and take my picture, most seem unfazed by a telepresence robot in their midst. “Is she inside it?” asks one flummoxed attendee. “No, I’m in my kitchen in San Francisco,” I explain. No Las Vegas hotel, airplane ticket, or taxi for me. It takes just 15 minutes to get ready, brew some coffee and be at the Las Vegas Convention Center 566 miles away in robotic spirit.
It’s pretty great to be able to see what the show looks like. However it’s hard to actually get information out of people in a journalistic way. I’m definitely not going to be able to take a source to a bar and get them liquored up with this thing. Most people are too fascinated by the medium to concentrate on an actually conversation.
“The technology getting in the way?” asks Suitable Technologies CEO Scott Hassan when I run into him at the Beam booth. Yes, it’s even more interruptive to a normal flow of conversation than Google Glass.
There are fewer than 10 Beams at CES this year, most being used by Suitable Technologies product specialists to interact with attendees. “I want 10,000 at CES next year. It’s not as good as being there. But we want it to be the next best technology for being there,” says Hassan, who has a Beam at home so he can put his kids to bed and wake them up in the morning while traveling, as during a recent trip to Russia. “My kids may have a bizarre sense of what parents do.”
The Beam has an Ctrl-Alt-P “party mode” which activates 6 microphones so I can hear everything, and amplifies my voice so people can hear me over the noise in the large room. It can operate via Wi-Fi, but mine has a 4G card as well. My connection only gets significantly slowed down while hanging out near a drone exhibit; I think we were competing for bandwidth.
You’ll notice I only have screenshots and not video. That’s because there is no “record” function as part of the Beam software design.
“We did not put a record button on it. We want it to be ephemeral, like a normal conversation,” explains Hassan. “The line in between the connection points is encrypted. Privacy is important to us.”
I wanted to check out the Google booth, given how interested they are in robots these days, but we couldn’t find it. I had little sense of where I was within the hall. A map overlay for the operating system would have been very appreciated.
The busiest spots on the floor were near the connected cars and the 3-D printing machines. Based on my two-hour Beamed visit, I’d guess those are the most exciting technologies this year.
It actually did feel as if I were walking around the room. “The camera has a 105 degree angle, like the human eye,” says Meredith Klee of Inner Circle Labs.
“She’s 5′ 2” and 100 pounds,” joked Klee, referring to my robot height and size. “Pretty perfect.”
All in all, it was a pretty nice way to check out the show without actually having the headache of traveling there. It seems like it shouldn’t be that novel in the age of Skype and Facetime, but there is something awesome about being able to video in and then to actually move around independently. I don’t think I could do justice reporting around the country (or world) this way given how distracting the medium is for the person I’m talking to, but it might have been nice to send this thing in my stead during wedding season. They just need to make one that can dance.