SXSW show floor: Beam videoconferencing device takes a spin

On the exhibit hall's opening day, attendees were greeted by a talking monitor on wheels

Tech enthusiasts at South by Southwest Interactive exploring the exhibit hall's gizmos and apps on Sunday were greeted a little differently at one booth -- the figure approaching them was not a person but a television-sized monitor mounted to a sleek base on wheels.

Standing roughly five feet tall, a 17-inch screen mounted to a two-wheel chassis base glided toward passersby to say hello and ask them if they had any questions.

Many did.

"Are you real?" one young wide-eyed attendee asked the device.

The product, called Beam and made by Menlo Park, Ca.-based Suitable Technologies, is real, though interacting with it may feel a little bizarre.

At first glance Beam almost has the feel of a robot, but on the screen of the several units on display at the booth were company representatives, speaking to SXSW attendees in Austin, Texas, in real time from their offices in California.

The technology, which the company refers to as remote presence, is designed to enable communication between people separated by distance but who also want more flexibility in sharing a physical space.

"Video conferencing is cool, walking is cool, so together this is very cool," said Suitable Technologies CEO Scott Hassan.

In fact, Suitable Technologies sees its competition as face-to-face interactions rather than other teleconferencing services such as Skype.

"With a video conference you're stuck on the wall, but this is mobile," Hassan said.

The technology could be used by office managers, for instance, to remotely monitor the goings-on at their company or chat with employees across the office building's floor.

Beam, having just launched last November, is still in an early rollout, with less than 100 contracts currently signed. Though some of Suitable Technologies' current customers are pretty high profile -- they include Google, Microsoft, Intel and the Mars food company.

It lists for $16,000, but following installation and other startup costs, the price to customers is actually closer to $20,000, the company said.

Though Suitable Technologies is primarily pursuing enterprise accounts right now, the product could also serve hospitals, schools, and people needing special remote care in the home, company representatives said.

The unit can move in 360 degrees, at speeds of up to 3 miles per hour -- the perfect walking speed so that device could "walk" alongside an employee in the building, the company claims.

Beam's biggest barrier to adoption, Hassan said, is the strength of the customer's wireless network. It works over Wifi, but there were actually some kinks in Google's network, for instance, that needed to be sorted out first before the product could be used there, Hassan reported.

Beam's concept is not altogether new. Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Double Robotics, for example, showcased its rolling iPad on wheels last month at the Macworld expo.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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