Telep­res­ence robots let em­ploy­ees

The Pak Banker - - 6BUSINESS -

PEngi­neer Dal­las Goecker at­tends meet­ings, jokes with col­leagues and roams the of­fice build­ing just like other em­ploy­ees at his company in Sil­i­con Val­ley. But Goecker isn't in Cal­i­for­nia. He's more than 2,300 miles away, work­ing at home in Seymour, In­di­ana. It's all made pos­si­ble by the Beam - a mo­bile video-con­fer­enc­ing ma­chine that he can drive around the Palo Alto of­fices and work­shops of Suit­able Tech­nolo­gies. The 5-foot-tall de­vice, topped with a large video screen, gives him a phys­i­cal pres­ence that makes him and his col­leagues feel like he's ac­tu­ally there.

"This gives you that ca­sual in­ter­ac­tion that you're used to at work," Goecker said, speak­ing on a Beam. "I'm sit­ting in my desk area with every­body else. I'm part of their con­ver­sa­tions and their so­cial­iz­ing."

Suit­able Tech­nolo­gies, which makes the Beam, is now one of more than a dozen com­pa­nies that sell so-called telep­res­ence robots. Th­ese re­mote-con­trolled ma­chines are equipped with video cam­eras, speak­ers, mi­cro­phones and wheels that al­low users to see, hear, talk and "walk" in far­away lo­ca­tions.

More and more em­ploy­ees are work­ing re­motely, thanks to com­put­ers, smart­phones, email, in­stant mes­sag­ing and video-con­fer­enc­ing. But those tech­nolo­gies are no sub­sti­tute for ac­tu­ally be­ing in the of­fice, where ca­sual face-to-face con­ver­sa­tions al­low for easy col­lab­o­ra­tion and ca­ma­raderie.

Telep­res­ence-ro­bot mak­ers are try­ing to bridge that gap with wheeled ma­chines - con­trolled over wire­less In­ter­net con­nec­tions - that give re­mote work­ers a phys­i­cal pres­ence in the work­place.

Th­ese ro­botic stand-ins are still a long way from go­ing main­stream, with only a small num­ber of or­ga­ni­za­tions start­ing to use them. The ma­chines can be ex­pen­sive, dif­fi­cult to nav­i­gate or even get stuck if they ven­ture into ar­eas with poor In­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity. Stairs can be lethal, and non­techies might find them too strange to use reg­u­larly.

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