Roaming MWC 2015
This week at Mobile World Congress, we've seen HTC and Samsung launch their hottest flagship smartphones for 2015. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to make the trip to Barcelona, Spain, but that didn't stop me from having a virtual presence at the show.
The internet allows me to stream audio and video, Google Hangouts and Microsoft's Skype technology let me take calls with partners and executives, and telepresence technologies, like the BeamPro and Beam+, bring me virtually to MWC so I can take face-to-face meetings.
While similar in scope to video conferencing solutions, telepresence makes technology more personal and engaging. This means I can work from home with a telepresence robot in the office and follow my colleagues around as they move between conference rooms, rather than requiring my in-office attendees to be tethered to a laptop or re-dial into a video call when they transition between different meeting spaces.
YouTube : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g5OdpDNMWDc
The design of the $16,950 (£11,040, AU$21,685) BeamPro and $1,995 (£1,300, AU$2,560) Beam+ gives other meeting participants a sense that you're physically present. One way to describe the solution is that it's a non-autonomous robot on wheels that looks like a monitor mounted to a stand that's affixed to a Segway. The monitor shows your face, and BeamPro gives your virtual call a physical presence in the room.
Measuring 62 x 15 x 25 inches or 157.5 x 38.1 x 63.5 cm (H x W x D), the BeamPro has a 17-inch mounted display that shows your face in life-size proportion, a six-microphone array, integrated speakers, and an eight-hour battery life.
The Beam+ is slightly more compact at 53 x 12 x 14 inches or 134.6 x 35.6 x 30.5 cm (H x W x D), and it is designed for small office and home use. The Beam+ has a smaller 10-inch display, 4-microphone array, integrated speakers, and eight-hour battery life.
At the top, a wide-angle camera is mounted to give you a view of your surroundings, similar to what you would see if you were walking down a conference hall at MWC.
On the bottom, the wheels and motors allow you to move and steer either Beam units remotely with either a keyboard or mouse. BeamPro can reach speeds up to 2mph, and you can control how fast or slow BeamPro accelerates.
To avoid obstacles while maneuvering Beam, a second wide-angled camera is angled downwards, giving you a clear view of where Beam is headed. This allows you to steer clear of obstructions to your path, avoid running over someone's toes, and see where stairs are so you don't accidentally tumble. It's similar to a backup camera mounted to the rear of a car for parking assistance.
Beam me up!
Beaming works when you have a telepresence BeamPro or Beam+ unit set up at a remote location. In my case, a BeamPro was set up in Barcelona on the show floor of Mobile World Congress. On my Mac at home, I downloaded the Beam software, connected to the BeamPro unit, and steered my telepresence robot around the show floor.
Using BeamPro, I interviewed conference attendees, virtually "walked" the show floor by steering BeamPro, and engaged in lively discussions and viewed demos from the comfort of my desk - things that would not have been possible with a simple video conference solution alone. In essence, it gave my a physical presence at MWC without requiring downtime for flights.
I wouldn't have been able to frequent the various booths or get live demos, see attendee reactions, or experience the excitement with traditional video conference. While traditional video conferencing is designed for a quiet room, BeamPro takes me to the heart of the action.
Similarly, executives could use BeamPro to attend meetings at the office while they're traveling for work or check in on the manufacturing facility in China from a design office from, say, Cupertino, California.
Pluses and minuses
Beaming with benefits
It's the mobility of BeamPro that sets it apart from a static setup of using a video conference solution on a desktop. Rather than requiring the other party be tethered to their computer for the call, BeamPro's wheels and motors allow me to follow and move with my colleagues. Although I used BeamPro to travel to MWC, telepresence could take me to a facility in China or take a leisurely stroll through the Detroit Institute of Arts museum.
Additionally, in a meeting, BeamPro makes video conferencing more dynamic and engaging. Rather than forcing my meeting attendees in a conference room to look at a video screen, I can have a "face-to-face" meeting and give attendees "eye contact" when using BeamPro.
Turning Beam Pro slightly to the left, I can be talking to the colleague in the next chair over, and a shift of Beam Pro to the right focuses my attention and the conversation to my colleague on the other side in a meeting.
Beam+ is a lighter unit designed for smaller spaces. The four-microphone array isn't as good at canceling background noises as the six-microphone setup on BeamPro. Additionally, the Beam+ speakers don't crank out as much volume as on the Pro.
With Beam+, you can check in on grandma at home or talk to the kids as they're getting back from school.
Another difference is that BeamPro allows more users to connect to a single unit. The unit requires an annual subscription fee of $3,200 (£2,100, AU$4,100) for access to the Beam Site Admin tools for managing multiple users, organizations, access times and beams.
There is no subscription cost at this time for Beam+, but there may be added costs in the future for premium features or tools.
A downside in mobility with both Beam models is that neither can handle stairs. If you need to get to a different level in a building, you'll need to use elevators or handicap-accessible ramps. Additionally, with a slow speed of 2 mph, don't expect to go anywhere quickly with BeamPro.
That said, I was never able to move rapidly around MWC as the technology piqued the curiosity of onlookers who stopped in front of the machine, blocking my path forward. Because of the footprint, it is also harder to squeeze through a crowd.
For the price, I would have liked a higher resolution for video. My VGA video feed from MWC was a bit too grainy. The BeamPro should have been equipped with at least a 720p main camera coupled with a higher resolution display on the unit. Another useful feature that could be added in a future model is the ability to tilt or articulate the camera upwards or downwards.
- Read our review of Google Glass.