It’s the stuff of science fiction, yet in Silicon Valley, this is just another day at the office.
‘Beaming’ into work is made possible by a robotic mobile video-conferencing machine, which drives around offices and workshops giving a ‘physical presence’ for remote-working employees.
The machine is a 5-ft tall device complete with a large video screen, speakers and microphone, making employees feel as though their colleague is actually there.
Engineer Dallas Goecker from Suitable Technologies in Silicon Valley is one worker who utilises the ‘Beam’ on a daily basis. “This gives you that casual interaction that you're used to at work,” Goecker told AP, speaking on a Beam. “I'm sitting in my desk area with everybody else. I'm part of their conversations and their socialising.”
Suitable Technologies, which makes the Beam, is now one of more than a dozen companies that sell the so-called telepresence robots. These remote-controlled machines are equipped with video cameras, speakers, microphones and wheels that allow users to see, hear, talk and even “walk” in faraway locations.
More and more employees are working remotely, thanks to computers, smartphones, email, instant messaging and video-conferencing. Critics say these types of new technologies are no substitute for actually being in the office, where casual face-to-face conversations allow for easy collaboration and company solidarity.
However before panic ensues, these robotic stand-ins are still a long way from going mainstream. Just a very small number of organisations use them, as the machines expensive, difficult to navigate and can even get stuck if they venture into areas with poor Internet connectivity.
“There are still a lot of questions, but I think the potential is really great," said Pamela Hinds, co-director of Stanford University's Center on Work, Technology, & Organization. "I don't think face-to-face is going away, but the question is, how much face-to-face can be replaced by this technology?"