LAS VEGAS -- With the unveiling Wednesday of Suitable Technologies' Beam+, telepresence robots are becoming more affordable for many of the people who need them most.
Over the last few years, a range of companies have built telepresence robots -- devices that roll around, connecting people remotely through the use of video screens and microphones. But until now, many of the robots have been too costly for all but a few people, and have mainly belonged in the corporate world.
The Beam+, however, will start at $995 (for the first thousand units) and then will cost $1,995. This could make the robots accessible for many senior citizens, families, and others who want the ability to communicate over video regardless of where they are.
Suitable was started by Scott Hassan, who also was the founder of Willow Garage, a Silicon Valley company built to foster the development of next-generation robotics. That company, which has largely ceased operations, created ground-breaking products like the PR2, one of the world's first serious multipurpose robots.
For some time, Suitable has been producing the Beam telepresence robot, which costs $16,000 and is aimed at businesses that want to cut down on business travel. But now, the technology has dropped in price by an order of magnitude, and they may now become something average people have at home.
That's the idea, at least. In an interview at CES here last week, Hassan demonstrated the Beam+ and showed how it rolls around easily, and docks itself when needing to recharge. He said the robot is essentially plug-and-play, meaning that just about anyone can get it up and running. "Just connect to wireless," Hassan said, "and you're done."
The robot sports a heavy, wide base on wheels, and a tablet screen atop a tall, narrow neck. Owners control the robot with either an app for a Windows 8 tablet or a native Mac or PC application, and can easily move it around wherever it is physically located. There, anyone nearby can see the person controlling it on the tablet screen, and can have a two-way video chat. Hassan said it's ideal for everything from helping seniors get through their daily life to a parent on the road playing hide and seek with the kids.
The 53-inch-high robot can roll around, communicating via Wi-Fi, and has a two-hour battery life. The remote user drives the robot around using either their fingers on their touch-screen mobile device, or with a mouse on a computer.
Hassan explained that Suitable was able to get the initial price of the Beam+ to dip below the $1,000 level by using durable plastics instead of metals, and by using inexpensive commodity tablet screens. Suitable plans to double the price after the first 1,000 units are sold, and expects to begin shipping the robots this summer.
Suitable is the latest Willow Garage spinoff. Last year, another group of the company's former employees announced the launch of Unbounded Robotics, which is making the $35,000 UBR-1, a one-armed multi-purpose robot that can do much of what the PR2 could do.
At the same time, Suitable is just one player of many in the telepresence space and not the only one with prices aimed at individuals. Double Robotics sells a $2,500 model that uses an iPad as a screen but which doesn't come with the iPad. And other companies, from iRobot to Anybots, have taken on the genre.
So, can Suitable make its mark in telepresence robots for individuals? It's too early to tell, of course. But selling the first thousands units for $1,000 -- complete with screen -- is smart. And the company's deep Willow Garage blood line is going to matter to a lot of people. Ultimately, though, the question may be whether people want these types of robots at all. If they do, Suitable looks well positioned to make its way into a lot of people's homes.Clarification, 10:13 a.m. PT: This story initially gave a rounded-up figure for the price of the Beam+ robot. It has been adjusted down by $5 to the actual preorder price of $995 for the first 1,000 robots and $1,995 after that.