At CES 2014, Even The Journalists Are Robots

In the future, robots might be a regular sight on the conference floor. Instead of watching streams and recorded video, interested parties unable to attend an event could easily find their way there without ever leaving their living room, through the wonders of telepresence. After going through a sign-up process, each user would be given control of a single telepresence robot, equipped with a screen, microphone, camera, and speakers. From there, they could pretty much go nuts. Although they wouldn't be able to physically interact with anything at the conference, they could still talk to speakers and attendees, explore the booths, and in general spend time seeing the sights.

One organization - Suitable Technologies - is jump-starting this trend with Beam: a $16,000, motorized robot which has been described as the lovechild of an iPad and a segway. Each wheeled robot has about eight hours of battery life and a maximum speed of two miles per hour; these bots are also equipped with 17-inch flatscreens that displays the user's face. In addition, the Beam's also got something known as a "Party Mode," which activates six microphones and amplifies the user's voice so it can be heard over the noise in a large room. It's able to operate via both Wi-Fi and 4G. 

When she found out that the developer planned to have eight of these robots wandering around CES 2014, Forbes journalist Kashmir Hill decided she wanted to be one of the test pilots.

After downloading the software and sitting through a two minute introductory video (which, among other things, warned her to avoid stairwells and running over the feet of other attendees), she found herself looking through the 'eyes' of the Beam, which she was able to control with the arrow keys on her keyboard. Curiously enough, while a few people seemed fascinated by the Beam's presence, Hill noted that most simply shrugged it off and went about their business. That's right - they ignored an autonomous, talking robot as though it were commonplace.

Because...I guess it kind of is, these days. It's still weird to think, really. I mean, not even ten years ago, this sort of thing would have been strictly confined to the realm of science fiction, but now? Now, we've got robots everywhere.

We're getting a bit off track. The idea that one might be able to actually attend a conference from the comfort of their own home is pretty awesome to think about, but we're a long distance from such an experience being anywhere near as good as the real thing. 

This is no Boston Dynamics Big Dog suited for rough terrain," wrote Hill, "once I'm inside the machine, I'm in a digital wheelchair, limited to hitting the arrow buttons to turn and advance." 

What's more, Hill continued, Beam and its brethren aren't exactly well-suited to being used in a journalistic fashion. Users operating the robot have no real means of interacting with their environment, and communicating with other people through the robot is like talking to someone through Skype who's never seen a computer before. Inevitably, the conversation always turns back to the robot.

"Most people are too fascinated by the medium to concentrate on a substantive conversation about anything other than my robot body," Hill continued. "It's even more interruptive to a normal flow of conversation than Google Glass." 

Suitable Technologies CEO Scott Hassan isn't discouraged. Though there are fewer than 10 Beams at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, he aims for there to be 10,000 at the next one. He understands full well that it's not as good as being there, but wants to establish his robot as the next best thing. Hassan himself jokes that he has a Beam at home, which he uses to put his kids to bed and wake them up in the morning while traveling.

"My kids may have a bizarre sense of what parents do."

With a robot like Beam, questions of privacy are inevitably going to arise, and Hassan was quick to establish that, for Suitable Technologies, privacy is of the utmost importance. The robots, he explains, don't even have a record function. "We want it to be ephemeral, just like a normal conversation," he says, adding that they're using strong encryption for the line between the Beam's connection points.

In the future, robots might well become a common sight on the conference room floor, as attendees around the world check in from their bedrooms, kitchens, and offices. As people become more used to them and the technology becomes commonplace, it'll naturally become more advanced. For the time being, though?

It's definitely the next best thing to really being therre.