Remember in Star Wars when the hologram of Princess Leia popped out of R2D2, revealing a recorded plea for Obi Wan to help a sister out? Of course you do. Now, imagine that were you pleading for help, except this time, R2D2 is your very own personally controlled robot providing a live stream of your face and voice as you maneuver him around the universe from the confines of your prison cell (or cubicle—eh, same thing). That, friends, is precisely what you can do with telepresence robots. We may not have invented hyperdrive yet, but the brainiacs over in Silicon Valley have apparently solved the modern dilemma of needing to be in two places at once.
Going much further than Skype or Google Chat, telepresence robots provide exactly what the name implies—an actual physical presence in a place other than a person’s true location, by way of technology (i.e., robots). Back in 2010, a company called Willow Garage made a huge splash when they unveiled an open source robot dubbed the PR2, an autonomous personal robot. Soon after came Texai, an in-house project that was basically a simplified version of the PR2 that carried along a screen connected to Skype. Fans of “The Big Bang Theory” will recognize the Texai as “Shel-bot,” aka the robot rigged by antisocial genius Sheldon Cooper as a means of protecting himself from the dangers of the world while still getting to participate in it.
And then came Beam. With the Texai as a prototype, Willow Garage spinoff Suitable Technologies released the Beam telepresence robot aimed at businesses looking to cut travel costs while also bringing those who work remotely into the office in a manner more tangible than your run-of-the-mill conference call. Beam works like this: You, in the location of your choice, control the movement of the 5-foot-2-inch robot via keyboard. A camera and microphone let you see and hear what’s going on, and all the while, a live feed of your face is displayed on a 17-inch flatscreen. Want to call an impromptu meeting with a few nearby colleagues? Done. Want to eavesdrop on that phone call you just know is about your last presentation? That may be a little more difficult, but hey, doable! And you don’t even have to change out of your pajamas.
Earlier this year, Suitable announced plans to release the Beam+, a much more affordable personal use version. The first 1,000 units will be sold at $995 (screen included), with the regular price being $1,995. Double Robotics, Suitable’s main competitor, has a similar version in stores for $2,499, while Tokyo-based Telemba is currently marketing the “world’s cheapest telepresence robot kit” designed to turn your Roomba and tablet into a working robot for $170.
If all of this is starting to sound a little too Skynet for your liking, you’re not alone. Just remember: A robot is a robot is a robot … until, of course, it tries to take over the world. Then it’s a problem.
Jennifer Sanchez is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.