01:27 PM

Telepresence Robots Roam Free At Intel

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Five-foot tall robots roam the halls of the Intel's offices, popping into cubicles for quick chats and rolling into meetings.

By Intel Free Press

When a telepresence robot wheels into a meeting, the screen displays streaming video from the user’s webcam. The robot’s video camera, microphone and speakers send a live stream from the room back to the person in another location. The wheeled robots can be driven remotely from a laptop, freeing them to move around the room or extend face-to-face collaboration to other locations.

Intel IT Labs is piloting the robots at Intel campuses in Folsom, Calif. and Hillsboro, Ore. Later this year the pilot project is scheduled to expand to Intel facilities in Santa Clara, Calif. and Chandler, Ariz. The wheeled video conferencing robots — the product name is Beam — are made by Suitable Technologies of Palo Alto, Calif.

“With Beam you are virtually in the room. You can see and hear the presenter, including seeing their facial expressions, hand gestures and other body language,” said John Nguyen, an Intel IT Labs researcher working on the pilot.

“You can ‘walk’ around the room to see what others are doing. The telepresence rooms we currently have use (Microsoft) Lync, which is used for videoconferences and presentations that are one-on-one, and you can’t see all that’s going on in the room when doing so is important for collaboration and other visual purposes, like seeing what’s written on the board.”

“You can do this anywhere your laptop is, so it saves on travel,” said Nguyen. “From your desk you can have a meeting in China one hour, and the next you’re in a face-to-face meeting in India, and later on you’re engaging with the team in Israel, all without getting on an airplane and you’re home in time for dinner.”

Intel IT Labs has been working on telepresence robots since 2010. The three generations prior to the Beam employed a tablet attached to a remote-controlled machine; the first version was built atop a Roomba vacuum cleaner and the second integrated the Xbox 360 Kinect Sensor. The MantaroBot TeleMe was the foundation of the third-generation prototype. The current model uses an Intel Core i3 processor.

Intel was Suitable’s first customer for Beam, according to Bo Preising, vice president of engineering for the Palo Alto-based company. Other companies are also now using the robots, including IBM, Microsoft, Google and Mars.

The market for robots is growing crowded. More than a dozen players are vying for a piece of a global market that ABI Research estimates will hit $13 billion by 2017. iRobot’s healthcare-geared RP-VITA, Vgo, Jazz and QB are among them. iRobot and Cisco recently announced the Ava 500, which uses autonomous navigation technology to drive itself.

The current pilot of the Beam robot will allow Intel IT to assess if a fleet of remote telepresence devices is indeed more cost-efficient and productive than wiring conference rooms. According to Nguyen, a Beam robot is approximately half the cost of a single telepresence room and unlike the rooms, you don’t need two robots to use the technology.

Only one Beam is required to be functional,” he said. “To use a telepresence room, a person has to be physically onsite, but remote telepresence can be used from wherever your laptop can get internet access.”

Intel IT Labs is looking into making the machine more human-like with the addition of an arm or tray and other functionality.

“With the fourth generation Beam robot we’re working with Suitable on making this enterprise-ready, adding capabilities like getting on an encrypted wireless network like the one Intel has,” said Nguyen. “With that capability, the robot can be driven anywhere our wireless network has range.”

Beyond potential costs savings, Intel and Suitable are looking to the current pilot to identify other opportunities for the technology.

“Intel and we see this as a huge collaboration tool,” said Preising. “Think about how Beam could be used in clean rooms. Instead of someone having to take the time to change into a bunny suit just to talk to someone inside the clean room, the person could teleconference. Many times colleagues forego such conversations because it’s such a hassle. Beam actually allows for more conversations.”