Evaluating The Beam Telepresence System

Nov. 4, 2013
Robobusiness is done for another year and Technology Editor Bill Wong reminisces about beaming in using Suitable Technologies Beam telepresence system.
Attending Robobusiness 2013 via Suitable Technologies Beam (see Gallery: Beaming Robobusiness Day 2 Meeting People) telepresence device (they don't want us to call it a robot) turned out quite well. It had the advantage of being there and letting me chat with people on the show floor (see Gallery: Beaming Robobusiness Day 1).

Also check out Elisebeth Eitel's blog on her first Beaming experience (see Telepresence robot gives me wicked case of the giggles). It is also a humerous highlight of the FutureMed show at the Hotel Del Coronado, San Diego that we both attended via Beams.

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Of course, using the Beam is not the same as being there but I did get to meet plenty of people (see Gallery: Beaming Robobusiness Day 2 Meeting People) although interacting remotely required some adaptations. For example, I had a lot of people taking pictures of my screen because I could not hand them a business card. I wound up creating a couple of documents and images with these details so I could share the screen of the application I created them in so they could see them. Of course, my face was normally on the screen (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Suitable Technologies Beam normally shows your face providing mobile video conferencing. That's me by the way.

Overall the price of renting ($100 for three days) the Beam made it a bargain. It is not like being there but, like good video conferencing, it provides 90% of what you want and usually more than what you need. For me, the ability to interact with the vendors was invaluable and very close to what I would be able to do if I had been there.

The rest of this article is about that interaction and what I liked and disliked about the Beam.

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Audio And Video

Starring with the good things, it was great to talk and view the show. The audio was good but required tweaking on occasion. Sometimes it was the local speakers and other times it was the microphones. I tried the party mode that boosts the audio but sometimes that caused distortion. Again, tweaking made things work and I only had to do this a couple times. The biggest challenge occurs when talking with a number of people spaced at different distances.

The biggest challenge on the audio side is that you cannot hear what the people at the other end are actually hearing so you need a nice person to provide you feedback or you could be blasting their eardrums or be so quiet no one knows you are talking. One recommendation is to make sure you have decent audio equipment to start with.

Having decent video equipment is important as well but I used both a Dell laptop with a built-in camera and microphone as well as a PC with a Microsoft HD camera and its microphone. They both worked well although I was in a quiet environment for both.

Another challenge with the audio and video is the connection between systems and how everything can affect the results. For example, one system I used was at the low end of the computational spectrum. It worked well when I was using only the Beam application but fire up a browser, email, editor, screen capture and audio capture applications and things started to become a little tenuous.

Likewise, the network connection can be an issue. The first evening the show restricted the wireless bandwidth and it showed in the video although the audio fared better. The video stream was a little granular and occasionally stopped. It was annoying but not necessarily a show stopper. These issues where almost non-existent once they had the full bandwidth to work with. The exceptions seemed to be particular locations, like one corner of the show, and when a large number of Beams were running. Likewise, the other people using the wireless network could have had an impact as well.

My network may have been an issue as well. I have 802.11g and 802.11n. The latter worked without a hitch but the former was challenged. The status information was useful but not self explanatory. Talking with Beam helped identify where some of these possible issues were.

Bottom line on hardware, get the fastest multicore systems with the most amount of memory running the latest OS. A quad core system with at least 8 Gbytes of RAM is a reasonable base. Also be careful about all the apps you might be running in the background. I actually used remote access to another PC to off load these when using a lower performing platform.

Mobility And The Environment

Driving the Beam was an interesting exercise of two interfaces: mouse and keyboard. I almost used the mouse exclusively. I was simply a matter of moving it within the lower screen that showed the information from the downward facing camera. It show the area around the robot although mostly in the front. A trio of parallel arrows is shown when the mouse is in that area and pressing the left mouse button starts the robot rolling. The distance from the robot controls speed and direction.

Suitable Technologies did a good job of matching the lower camera output with the main camera so it was relatively easy to navigate through a crowd as long as there was enough room. The robot (telepresence device) is about the size of a person so as long as you do not need to push or shove then I could navigate the Beam through a cluster of people without bumping into them or running over their toes.

One thing that would be useful would be a bump sensor though. A proximity sensor would be more difficult to build and probably more expensive. In general, it is more about bumping into something on the sides or rear that is an issue.

This gets us to a point of contention about the system design.

The Beam has two cameras with fish eye lenses. It was adequate but I found it confining. Somewhat like a one eyed horse with blinders. Increasing the viewing area is possible but it adds expense. The reason Suitable Technologies gives is that it wants the Beam to mimic the presence of a person. The problem is that we can easily turn our heads. Turning the entire Beam is the only way to adjust your viewing area. Rolling down the isle and figuring out when to turn to view a booth was a challenge when I was trying to see around people that were there already or to view a particular item on display.

I would have preferred having a row at the top of the display that gave me a 360 degree view or possibly side view cameras. The reason for not providing more information is that others may feel that providing more capabilities than a person would providing the ability to snoop.

I think that notion has validity but I think that the improved user experience would greatly outweigh these concerns. Actually adding a small screen in the rear would not be a bad idea since it is hard to identify people using the Beams. In fact, I would like to suggest that the Beams have different colors and decorations so they can be identified from a distance.

Speed and viewing angle was an issue when trying to walk and talk. The people from Suitable Technologies could do this since they are used to the system but you need to walk ahead and turn your head a bit more than usual. This is to keep within the viewing and microphone space. There was a speed governor for the show so people had to walk slower to stay with a Beam.

Exchanging Information

This is one area where changes are in the works that could have a significant impact on using the Beam. At the show, there was no audio, video or screen capture or any sort. This was a privacy design issue for Suitable Technologies but that ignores the fact that I wound up doing all these via external programs and means. At a trade show, it was one of the things I did on a regular basis taking dozens of screen shots in the same fashion as I would have taken photos and videos using a camera.

The big difference was convenience and quality. A minor difference is feedback.

The system I used was inconvenient because I had to do multiple keyboard or mouse actions to capture and eventually save the files. There was no annotation available either.

The quality was an issue whenever closeups were needed or detail was important. The fisheye lens is also an issue here as well. Having a hi-res, say 16-Mpixel, camera, possibly with a zoom lens, would be fantastic.

For audio, it turns out that using the Windows Sound Recorder is all that is needed but that also takes a bit more effort than having a button on the Beam control panel. Likewise, having the audio linked to the capture location for images and video would be handy. In fact, it would be useful to have a mechanism for specifying a new directory, possibly with an annotation file that could be edited for additional notes. This could also be useful when recording what information you provide to the people you are talking to.

Building in image, audio, and video capture into the Beam control program has advantages to the people at the other end of the connection. For example, the Recording status you normally see on a camcorder view screen could be displayed when recording audio or video. A snapshot could show a camera iris animation or a click sound could be used as well.

The system has the ability to share an application on the screen. I used this to share word processor documents, slideshows and images. It is useful but again tedious for regular communication that always occurred when people asked who you were, where you were located, what you did, what your email was and so on. Having some of this prepared ahead of time would help and I had it the second day. Having the ability to quickly present it should have been just a combo box selection away.

This type of feature becomes more important when the Beam is used for different applications. For example, it could be in the booth so company representatives not at the show can interact with people. This means engineers, FAEs and specialists could be brought into the discussion and even show people around the booth.

Interaction in both directions would be enhanced if something like QR-code (Fig. 2) displays and recognition where implemented. This could be used to identify a booth/company and possibly provide specific information about a product or technology. It might provide automatic downloads or videos that could be viewed as well. This would actually provide a better experience than being there.

Figure 2. This QR-code is the URL for the article.

Having a QR-code displayed on the Beam could provide a link to information about yourself or the company. It would be useful to have a couple of these automatically generated for each user at an event like this and display some of that information on the screen as well, possibly along with the matching URL in text form.

Why have more than one for a user? Different versions could provide different information or levels of detail. They might also be used to provide information about other people, services or information that would be useful to the people you are talking to.

Finally, a USB interface for a flash drive would be handy. This would be matched with the ability to upload and download information. The interaction would have to be under the user's control and not everything should be copied and definitely nothing should be executed on the Beam or the user's PC.

Still, this is another area where the multiple combo box selection mechanism would be handy. For example, someone puts in a USB stick. One click copies information from the stick. Another couple clicks download files such as your contact information, tech sheet or resume.

Other Items

Now for a few general things that don't fit in the prior categories.

First, where do you start up? That may not matter in a fixed environment like a telepresence system in a company but at the show there were multiple locations to park and pick up a Beam. The problem was that you didn't know where that was until you started up the system. It took a little while to figure out where I was.

This brings up the issue of maps. GPS would be useful but even a simple map of the show floor would be handy. That was available separately but it should have been integrated into the control application because there was more that could be done like showing which station you were starting in. Likewise, we docked our Beams, although you could leave them and Beam employees would doc them. Knowing where a free dock was would be useful.

Teleconferencing between Beams could be handy especially if there is a group attending using their own Beams. For example, I could split a show floor up between another editor any myself and be drawn in to their environment when something useful was found.

I have already mentioned a QR-code scanner but regular bar code scanner support would be useful as well. The scanners in general would mean using a slightly different interface than say a smartphone because the device itself is rather hard to move around. Drawing a rectangle around the code would work. The challenge may be resolution but a hi-res camera could address those issues.

Likewise, an OCR scanner would be handy as well. Imagine being able to capture a business card, grabbing an email address and then sending out an email to the person right away or grabbing a URL and viewing a page of information on the web.

Beaming Applications

This is getting a bit long but I think that telepresence is going to change the way people view video conferencing in general. You also need to start thinking about how these Beams could be used.

Basic telepresence for video conferencing was the first application and attending a show is another. I already mentioned the possibility of putting a Beam in a booth to bring in outside help but there is more.

Suitable Technologies is working on a party mode style environment where one person would drive attendees around. In theory, people could switch off controlling the device. Likewise, the display could show small images of each person or the full image of a person in control or who might be asking a question. The master might have a control panel like many webinar systems for managing contacts and questions. Starting with a text question or a recorded question are just some options that would not be easily done using other environments since these could be linked directly to the person that initiated them possibly for a follow up question.

There are a variety of applications where this type of system would be useful. For example, the Robobusiness trade show is relatively small compared to a giant like the Consumer Electronic Show (CES). It would not be practical to do CES with a single device. On the other handy, having multiple devices spaced around the show and having the ability to switch from one to another would provide a way to view significant portions of the show and interact with people. This might be used in booths on the main show floor or in those closed door demo rooms that can be almost as large as some of the show floor booths.

So How Was Robobusiness?

I had a great time at the show. It is the first one I have not attended in person but it was well worth the time and effort to attend using the Beam. They can be a bargain at $16,000 for dedicated use and I hear they are working on leasing plans as well. I suspect that organizations that get started with one will have a few more before the end of that year.

Suitable Technologies had a very polished system for a first round. The Beams are great and very useful as is but, like almost any technology, an engineer will figure out more to do with them. It just takes time. I am looking forward to my next Beam event.


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