Telecommuting through a robot

- At some point during the year, quarter, month, week or day, every one of us in this nation's workforce likely experiences a moment where we simply cannot possibly conceive showing up at our job to complete the same routine of daily tasks our employers pay us to accomplish five days a week. At this juncture, our tired minds imagine: There must be a better way.

"What's amazing," Tom's Guide and Laptop Magazine Editor-in-Chief Mark Spoonauer said of the BeamPro, "is that after a couple of minutes you sort of forget that this robot is here."

At a maximum speed of a little more than two miles per hour, the BeamPro -- a 17-inch monitor, six microphones and two wide-angle cameras attached to a 5-feet, 2-inch motorized stand better envisioned if you watch the video version of this story -- allowed this reporter the shortest commute to the station of anyone in Fox 5's morning meeting. While the brain-trust meandered through the day's stories, I appeared professional and at attention from the waist-up through the Beam's LCD screen but sat pants-less in front of my laptop on a couch in my living room a borough away, catching Pokemon.

"You can just see when people go into a conference room and try to set up video conference calls how long that takes," Spoonauer said. "If something like this could just step in and you're controlling it from your laptop, I think it could alleviate a lot of headaches."

Spoonauer envisions telepresence technologies like the Beam -- many of which his website's reviewed -- aiding anyone traveling long distances for work, any expert in any field looking instruct others in an another location, anyone with a physical disability preventing them from appearing where they want or need to go and -- really -- anyone who can afford this technology.

"The near-term future for consumers is going to be lower-priced devices that have telepresence capabilities under $1,000," Spoonauer said.

The BeamPro Fox 5 borrowed sells for around $16,000, at a price point inaccessible to most of us. Without hands, this remote-controlled, rolling video-conferencing device lacks the dexterity of a human. After eight hours its battery dies. And the robot-reporter, -doctor, -teacher, -student, -humanitarian, -whatever requires a smooth-ish surface on which to maneuver. But the Beam also grants its users the freedom to contribute to and interact with the outside world (often much to the surprise of the outside world) while still surrounded by all the distractions and comforts of home (of which this reporter took full advantage).

On a completely average mid-summer Thursday, the Beam helped to author this edition of Mac King's Day Off and either delight or irritate a lot of people on 5th Avenue just trying to make it to their Fridays. Fortunately for them and unfortunately for me, this particular Beam is only a rental, and it seems extremely unlikely the Fox 5 high council will authorize a telecommuting-reporter day-shift ever again.

For other companies which might actually benefit from reducing travel or allowing employees to work from home, Spoonauer, Beam's manufacturer and others envision this technology aiding people in more important roles for more important reasons than that and those of this lazy reporter.

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