There are plenty of “good” reasons for the Beam “remote presence system” from Suitable Technologies to exist. Too bad it’s also the single strangest, creepiest, and douchiest gadget at CES 2014.
If you haven’t heard of Beam, it’s basically an iPad attached to a 5-foot tall robot with wheels. It is controlled though a desktop app by the person whose face appears on the screen. It has a camera at face level for video conferencing, and another waist-level, wide-angle camera to give the user a view of the ground, lest they run over an unsuspecting foot, cat, or small child.
Beam is a “good” product … in exactly the same way a Segway is a “good” product.
Despite what its booth at CES 2014 might imply, Beam is not new. It first popped onto the scene in 2012, and made a debut showing at last year’s CES. But the company is clearly making a major push this year. You may have seen a video of Beam late last year, as it made its way around Reddit and countless other websites, sparking a resounding “WTF?” from Web users the world over.
In person, Beam is both more and less impressive. After a face-to-machine chat with Arianne, a Suitable rep who spoke from her office in Palo Alto, California, some 540 miles away from the show floor of CES 2014 in Las Vegas, my initial skepticism about Beam had thawed … a little.
According to Arianne, Beam is especially helpful for companies that have offices all over the world. “It’s the easiest and cheapest way to connect,” she said. And that could be true – after you factor in the $16,000 minimum you’ll plunk down on a Beam, a cost that jumps to $20,000 after you factor in chargers and all the other necessary accessories. Indeed, for business people who often travel internationally, I can see how Beam could both save money in the long run and spare the mental drain of travel.
While businesses seem to be the primary target customer for the Beam, Arianne says there are plenty of other people and organizations that have begun to use the contraption. Universities, for example, “are using it for long-distance education,” she said. And hospitals have begun deploying doctors via robot to high-risk patients who are so sick that keeping them quarantined to prevent the spread of disease is a must.
On paper, that all sounds great. And it sounded pretty convincing when Arianne told it to me. She damn near had me sold. But after the glow of a PR chat wore off, I began to think about how using the Beam plays out in real life. Say your boss has a Beam, and randomly decides to zap himself into your office at random times – or even for planned meetings. That guy is a douchebag. I don’t care how practical the Beam is; using it at all is just weird. Want to be at the meeting in London but you’re in New York? Use Skype! Or a phone! Why do you need the ability to roll all around an office you’re not actually in, if not to freak people out?
And it will freak you out. As I tried to inconspicuously snap pictures for this article, Beam-people kept spinning around and rolling up to me. I couldn’t escape their soul-less glare, no matter how hard I tried to stay out of their camera-powered view.
The long-distance learning thing is slightly less offensive to me, for some reason that I can’t quite pin down. But the doctor thing? I mean, Jesus H. Christ, how crappy would you feel about life if you’ve caught some life-threatening disease and the only way people will talk to you is through a freakin’ robot? Blech! Thinking about that just makes me angry.
Still, I get it. Suitable Technologies has created a solution that DOES solve real problems. It represents exactly the kind of tech-fueled future we’ve been talking about for generations. So it is a “good” product … in exactly the same way a Segway is a “good” product: Only the world’s biggest assclowns will actually want to use one.