Beaming from Bordeaux: How “Mummybot” Can Be Home Each Evening


When UK-based computing researcher James Scott’s wife, Claire Martin, was offered a year-long opportunity to work in Bordeaux, France the only hesitation was leaving her family, which includes two young children, five days a week. James recalled using Beam for a six-month period to attend weekly meetings at Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington headquarters from his home in Cambridge, and immediately thought of Beam to help keep his family intimately connected throughout her absence. Now several months into the arrangement, Beaming from Bordeaux allows “Mummybot” to participate in family life in numerous important ways.

BEAM: Tell us a bit about yourself, and why and how you came to use Beam.

JAMES SCOTT (JS): I live in Cambridge in the United Kingdom, and I am a researcher looking at “ubiquitous computing” – including some work on remote presence. I have used Beam at Microsoft, so I was quite familiar with the device.

When my wife, who’s a cardiologist, got a great opportunity to go work in Bordeaux for a year, I wanted to make sure for the kids, who are five and seven, that she could be around as much as possible. That’s when it occurred to me to get a Beam. I mean, if you work near where you live, then the expectation is you’ll be home for dinner. If you don’t, then you won’t… but Beam changes that. Now there’s no reason Claire can’t be “home” for dinner. But I use Beam, too, when I have to be away for work.

BEAM: What is the benefit using Beam over say, video chat like Skype?

JS: Beam is so different than video chat. Claire can just turn up. She can stand up at the dinner table, and she can go to the piano and help the kids with their lessons. She even helps with homework. Our little one, Amy, puts her reading book on the kitchen counter, and the downward facing camera allows Claire to do the reading with her.

And it’s not just about homework. It’s about asking, “How was your day?” and keeping aware of what’s happening. Kids want to interact with their mum.

CLAIRE MARTIN (CM): The image I see through Beam is good enough to read Amy’s books, and the sound quality is just about good enough to do piano practice, which is a pretty high bar!  

BEAM: How did your kids and other family members react to your wife Beaming in?

JS: It was new for a day, and then it became second nature very quickly, particularly for the kids.

It’s interesting to talk to people about it – some see relying on it as very dystopian. But isn’t the alternative worse? When I’m working late, and I have a half hour I can “go home,” it’s a good solution. Of course it’s always better to be in person, but using Beam to be there is better than Skype, and both are better than nothing at all.

BEAM: Does the Beam have a nickname at this point? What do you and your children call it?

JS: It’s “Mummybot.” And when I’m on it, it’s “Robodaddy.” I can imagine many people nickname their Beams.

BEAM: How has Beam changed your home life and your daily routines?

JS: The fact that she can be there day in and day out, and help – as parents do – is tremendous. When both of you are there, you share the load, you eat together, you have family time. And that’s important.

Typically in evening when I’m trying to make dinner, change the kids’ clothes in their PE bags, and do other chores, it would be impossible to interact with the children at the same time. Claire’s able to move around, thanks to the Beam’s long battery life – and that mobility is key to make the experience work. She’s “home” every evening, between when kids get to the house until bedtime. And she reads the bedtime story.

CM: The kids’ bedroom is on the ground floor, and this means that I can move independently between the living room, the dining room and into the kids’ room. I find the Beam very easy to steer both through my laptop or my phone. The battery life is excellent – in fact, I don’t even know what it is as I haven’t got close to running out, and docking at the charging point at the end of the evening is simple, too.

BEAM: Is there anything that Claire can’t do via the Beam that you wished she could?

JS: Some things are different. Claire wouldn’t watch television with me through the Beam; it doesn’t seem like the obvious thing to do. We can’t play table tennis together (not yet, anyways). And there’s a specific division of labor: I have to do cooking, washing up, fix the PE bags, but Claire will do what she can remotely.

Discipline is also interesting. I’m trying to get the children to respond to Claire on Beam, but it’s easier for them to ignore her. So, weirdly, I’m trying to train them to take instructions from a robot.

BEAM: What has been the most surprising thing about having a Beam at home?

JS: It doesn’t matter where Claire is – she can pop on the Beam. My original expectation was she’d leave work, go to her home in Bordeaux, and Beam in. But actually I think she uses it just as much from her phone, her laptop at work, while on the tram, or wherever she may be. She doesn’t have to be in a particular physical place – it’s great you can get on your phone app and just be there.

Suitable Tech___

Amy and Robodaddy

By Amy Scott, age 5½

Beam+ Takes You There

Beam+ Takes You There

On a typical weekday morning, Victor Cho can turn on his Beam+ and experience breakfast time with his children while he’s hundreds of miles away.

Cho, the CEO of Evite, uses the controls on his computer at his Los Angeles office to move the Beam+ around his family’s kitchen in Northern California. He enjoys casual conversations with his two daughters, aged 8 and 6. He can drive the Beam+ using computer keyboard controls and dual cameras for front and floor views that provide peripheral vision to make him feel he’s in the room. He can look at what the children are doing and they can see his face on the screen. “It’s being there at the same time, paying attention to that person, and looking at that person,” he says.

Robot-3The girls have made it a natural part of their morning interaction with him. “I will walk them out the door and say bye to them, wishing them a good day at school,” Cho says, laughing. After school, or at evening play time, he can be doing work nearby while the kids play with Lego blocks.

For Cho, the Beam+ has made a significant, positive difference in his quality of life since he installed it this past summer. But that is just one way Cho benefits. Like many business people working in a global economy, his life happens in multiple places. With the Beam+, he also makes his presence felt among colleagues at Evite’s satellite offices in Chicago and New York. Employees of the growing online invitation and social planning company have also improved the quality of their remote interactions. While they once felt distant and removed, they now feel like they’re practically in the same space.

What’s clear is that once Cho starting using the Beam+, he started to see more ways to take advantage of what it offers. It’s the same kind of experience for other Beam+ owners, like Steve Simons and John O’Mullane. Even though all three executives are leaders in very different organizations, they each find a growing number of reasons to power up their Beam+ and BeamPro devices.

A Close-Up View for Product Demos

At his workshop in Mountain View, Calif., Steve Simons has developed a product that automates the work of precision milling machines that make metal parts. Instead of having a person manually feeding and cleaning materials, Simons Design Innovation has launched the Smart Valet, a material loading platform that is “like a bar feeder for your mill.” The goal: keep more machine shop jobs in the U.S. by making American plants more cost effective.

For prospective customers, it is important to see the Smart Valet in action. A YouTube video is fine to entice more interest. A trade show display is good, but often rushed, Simons says. What really works is inviting customers to drive a Beam+ around the workshop area where a Smart Valet is operating. That way, Simons says, the customer can see what he wants, when he wants, and can ask questions about what is in view.

“Typically we can send them a video. But we can develop a lot more interest if they can see the device run in person and see all the features and ask questions,” Simons says. “Once they start looking and asking questions, we have a pretty good conversation with them over using the Beam.”

This interaction saves both Simons’ company and the prospective customer from traveling during preliminary conversations and has shortened the sales process in some cases. “It has made the difference in at least the timing of the sale. We got the customer’s attention and we were able to explain why this is going to help them make money. I don’t think we would have been able to do it without the use of the Beam,” Simons says.
The video and sound quality (the Beam+ uses a microphone array that cancels out the ambient noise in the machine shop) makes it easy to see the action and hear people talking in the workshop.

The company also uses its Beam+ to monitor product tests during off hours. Simons or one of his colleagues can check the status of a Smart Valet test run. In one instance, Simons noticed that someone had not flipped a switch required for the machine to do a proper test. Simons drove back to the workshop to fix the problem.

When one of Simons’ business partners saw the Beam+ at the workshop, he brought it back with him to Taiwan (which meant Simons acquired another Beam+ for the Mountain View workshop). Now, Simons says, he can attend meetings and check in with colleagues at Intersource Partners in Taichung, Taiwan, a supply chain management company that performs quality control inspections on final products before they ship.

And just like the Smart Valet product demos, Intersource Partners can invite customers to use the Beam+ in Taichung to tour the office, attend product quality inspections and watch the results and ask questions. “I will go to a customer site, jump on the Beam in Taiwan and run it through the facility and show him what we are doing there and what the plant looks like. And along the way, have meetings with different officers in the company,” Simons says.

He can also guide the Beam+ from his office in Mountain View, with a customer along for the ride. “To me, the groundbreaking aspect of having the Beam in Taiwan is the mobility,” Simons says. “It allows something like a water cooler conversation to happen. Being able to run it around, and interact with anybody on-site is something I didn’t expect in terms of the results,” he adds.

At Bayer, a Chance to Be Present and Counted

John O’Mullane serves as head of innovation, research and development at Bayer Consumer Health, a Division of Bayer, the global life sciences company. From his office in Basel, Switzerland, he communicates with a diverse array of colleagues – from research scientists to customer experience designers – all over the world. As he began this summer to use BeamPro to visit with working groups in Memphis, Tennessee, he says he quickly saw its potential to bring people closer together even when they were separated by oceans or continents.

O’Mullane has a BeamPro at his company and a Beam+ at home. He says the difference between the Beam telepresence devices and other communications media is the difference between a passive bystander and an active participant. With the Beam, a user can feel more present by controlling his frame of attention. He can turn to react or see something that interests him. He can focus on what he thinks is important, rather than relying on a static camera or a conversation partner’s video camera position.

“Even in a video teleconference, you are kind of stuck in a room,” O’Mullane says. “If you were using your iPad and FaceTime, it’s not the same experience. You are kind of being led, and being taken someplace else. With the Beam, there is a kind of presence to it. We prefer to use it rather than any other way of communicating because it is so dynamic,” he adds.

So far, Bayer has just begun to use its BeamPro in meetings in Memphis. It is doing pilot tests with colleagues at a facility in China. But O’Mullane sees more possibilities than meetings and drive-by interactions. For example, he imagines attending brainstorming sessions at a consumer engagement center in Memphis, a facility with lots of open spaces and clusters of people working in small groups. There, a user could participate in a group discussion via the BeamPro and move from group to group through the facility.

Factory and lab tours are another potential application. O’Mullane foresees testing a BeamPro in a clean environment where people have to wear gowns and glasses. Bayer could also use the device to accompany a laboratory site auditor, or to visit with researchers to learn more about their latest work. Or to consult with colleagues in China or other locations that can benefit from expertise from headquarters or another site; to share knowledge via BeamPro rather than traveling would save both time and expense.

Shortly after Bayer gained experience with the BeamPro in its offices, O’Mullane bought a Beam+ for his home in New Jersey, where his wife spends time in addition to being in Basel. The experience of spending time together with her via the Beam+ has made a difference.

“You want that time together and on the telephone is tough. You miss all the body language,” he says. The great thing about the Beam+, he says, is “I can walk around the kitchen as my wife prepares dinner. And she can carry on preparing dinner. And when she is answering a letter, or opening the mail, or doing the dishwasher, I am wandering around the kitchen as well,” he says. “She can do her stuff, just as you would if you were there. Very rarely in today’s busy world, can you just have time to sit down, and have that time together and to have it be productive, for both. It is something that is rare.”

At Evite, a Welcome from the CEO

Evite CEO Victor Cho wants to create a vibrant culture that engages employees, whether they are in the Los Angeles, Chicago or New York office. Cho says the Beam+ helps him achieve that by allowing him to spend time with groups in each location, where he can have informal conversations. “If I have a chunk of downtime, one of the first things I will roll through my head is if there is someone or something interesting I can see. Usually there’s a task I can do, or I can just roam the hall and say hi to people,” he says. “I feel more connected to the offices.”

For example, he has driven the Beam+ in the New York office to say hello to a new employee and has dropped in on a Thanksgiving potluck lunch at headquarters when he was working from home one day.

And he has encouraged his colleagues to use the Beam+ to connect with each other, especially for one-on-one or small group conversations. “It’s a great employee motivator. People think it’s cool,” Cho says. “And it puts us at the progressive edge of how we think about employee interaction and the use of technology,” he adds.

Cho says his company has video conferencing capability, but he prefers to use the Beam+ when he can. “The amazing thing is that it’s just like I’m there in person. It’s more personal. The conversation is more natural. I can pop in and we can brainstorm. It lends itself to a more casual discussion,” he says.
He figures the Beam+ paid for itself when it saved him one cross-country trip to visit a remote office. And then there’s the Beam+ he has at home.

“When it came in the first week, I had two or three nights with my family. Those hours are priceless,” Cho says. “As long as I am doing any business travel, I will be getting the next version. It is that transformative.”

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