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Is this the future of retail?
What better way to sell telepresence technologies than having the store employees themselves appear via robot? At the Beam store in Palo Alto, Calif., no human salespeople physically appear, only robots, IEEE Spectrum reports.
This Beam store is the only one of its kind. Visitors who walk in will be greeted with a whirring sound, as the machines roll up and their hosts say hello. Behind each screen is a Beam employee, ready to answer any questions from the comfort of their own homes—which can be anywhere from Honolulu to New York to Los Angeles.
The Beam Remote Presence System from Suitable Technologies is about five feet tall, with two posts that lead to a wheelbase, and comes with a charging dock that plugs into a wall where the Beam lives between uses. Users appear on the 17-inch display and control the robot via keyboard, mouse, or Xbox controller. Beam can roll as fast as two miles per hour.
People behind the screen control the Beam through their computers, and two wide-angle cameras attached to the top of the bot lets them see everything happening around the store. It’s a bit eerie, watching floating heads tool around and talk to people in this video, and the customers’ react to the Beam with confusion and wonder.
You might already be familiar the Beam robot—its the same telepresence technology that whistleblower Edward Snowden rolls around in, often called the Snowdenbot.
People can’t purchase the technology on-site at Beam’s only retail store, effectively making it more of a show room. The telepresence robots cost $20,000, and weigh over 90 pounds, which can make walking out of the store with them a bit tricky.
Curiously, the company doesn’t worry about anyone stealing the robots. Thanks to their weight, GPS tracking, and the software required to operate them, potential thieves won’t get very far before being forced to ditch or return the Beam. Security is simple too—the doors lock and unlock remotely.
Beam robots were created for corporate boardrooms and traveling executives, or in Snowden’s case, for appearing at events he can’t physically attend. But we could soon see similar telepresence robots in our homes—Beam+ is set to hit the market late next year, with a relatively affordable price tag of $1,995.
The floating heads and robots on wheels might be fun to talk to, but its doubtful retail shops will adopt an all-robot sales team anytime soon. Most stores actually sell physical items, after all.
Selena Larson is a technology reporter based in San Francisco who writes about the intersection of technology and culture. Her work explores new technologies and the way they impact industries, human behavior, and security and privacy. Since leaving the Daily Dot, she's reported for CNN Money and done technical writing for cybersecurity firm Dragos.