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Face-to-Face From Across The Globe: Beam In Remote Workers

AUSTIN ( — There was one booth on the South by Southwest Interactive showroom floor that was surprisingly empty. The space belonged to Suitable Technologies, and its booth wasn't actually as empty as it first appeared. Suitable Technologies was showing off the Beam, a tool that helps remote workers feel a lot less remote.

Beam is a large robotic device with screens at head height that's manned by a remote user. The user controls Beam, using arrow keys on their keyboard to navigate the device and viewing images on their computer screen. The Beam has two HD cameras located directly above the display, one pointing straight ahead and the other with a slight downward angle, giving the user a full body image.

We spoke with Suzie, a representative who joined us from her desk in Palo Alto, Calif. We were able to maintain eye contact as we spoke, and she showed us how she could navigate around the booth using the directional arrows on her keypad. Our conversation was slightly disorienting at first, but we quickly adapted to this new communication mode and found that the conversation flowed naturally. We almost forgot Suzie wasn't actually standing in front of us, until she spun around to lead us to the other side of the booth.

During our conversation, she explained how Suitable Technologies has many remote workers itself, some as far away as Lithuania, who can walk around the office, visit coworkers' desks and ask questions face-to-face. These employees are extremely valuable to the company, so creating a work environment where everyone feels part of the community is vital to the work culture.

Beam can also be used by business owners who manage remote factories or with highly specialized doctors who need to consult with remote patients. It's much more engaging than video conferencing on a tablet, one of the lower-priced alternatives, as it allows the user full control and feels much more natural during interactions.

Users control Beam through a Web app, so there's no additional software or hardware required, beyond a webcam, speakers and a microphone. There isn't any smartphone or tablet support yet, but that could be an area of expansion for the future.

Suitable Technologies' Beam is mostly geared toward enterprise use, especially with a unit price of $16,000 and an install fee of $4000, bringing the total cost to $20,000. But this total price is bound to drop over time, allowing this product a much wider use with a larger audience.