Name: Erin Rapacki
Headquarters: California, United States
Superpower: Being in two places at once!
Erin Rapacki is the Marketing Director for Suitable Technologies, makers of the Beam telepresence robot! We discuss what the Beam team office is like; how robots are giving people a real presence and allowing us to be in two places at once.
Listen to the Podcast
Watch the full interview
Lisette: Great! And, we’re live! Welcome everybody to this remote interview. My name is Lisette and I’m interviewing people and companies doing great things remotely. And today on the line, I have Erin Repaki from San Francisco. And Erin, you’re with Suitable Technologies, makers of the Beam.
Erin: Yes! Hello! We make the Beam smart present system. You may have seen it as the video conferencing device that drives itself around. And we enable people to be everywhere they need to be.
Lisette: I love it! And on the LinkedIn site or on the website, it says, “Suitable Technologies develops products for people to live and work remotely”.
Erin: We find that very valuable. The way Beam started was from a remote engineer. It started in 2009, a remote electrical engineer lived in Indiana, the middle of the US and he was working for a company who was based in California, and he was somewhat frustrated of being a remote employee; not being to wrangle everybody in the same room or not being able to see the demos of the hardware he was actively working on. So, one of his business trips, he decided to build one of these telepresence devices out of spare robot parts. And, that actually was put on the show Big Bang Theory in 2010 as “Shelbot”. So, this remote engineer went from one of the least known people in the company, to the most known people in that organization. And the team decided to spin off to commercialize it and turn it into a product.
Lisette: Ah! I love how you just said “off the shelf robot parts”. Like you know, we all do.
Erin: Of course!
Lisette: That’s awesome! Now, I’m interested in terms of the Beam, we’ll get more into the Beam in a bit, but what I’m interested in is what does the Beam team office look like? How do you guys work together, as a team?
Erin: As you may imagine, we have the freedom to hire a lot of remote employees. So, a lot of our staff don’t live in California. In fact, some of our engineers decided to move away to Colorado because it didn’t matter or move away to another state because it’s more affordable. We recruited our creative director, he lives in Detroit. So, many of these remote people, they have a Beam that somewhat belongs to them in their building. So as you walk through our headquarters, there are desks there. People are sitting at the desks. There are Beams basically to every desk. There are Beams everywhere! Many of our remote staff are encouraged to stay logged into the Beam all day as they’re working. And, this is so people can find them or somewhat stroll up next to them. So like, strolling to somebody at their desk, people will stroll up to their Beams and say, “hey we got the same we’re working on.” A lot of our remote employees are software engineers and they’ll actually do somewhat of their pair-programming and collaboration with the Beam next to somebody at their desk. And, it’s been really valuable because, as you may have imagined, we have demos and opportunities and customers all over the country. So, we encourage our sales and marketing reps to live as far apart from each other around the country as possible.
So, I have a colleague in New York. I have a colleague in San Diego. I have a colleague in Seattle. We need to find someone in Florida. That will be helpful. But, if there’s ever a demo in those regions, we got somebody who lives there and can support it. And our team meetings are literally half-room, maybe people in the flesh, but the other half of the attendants are in Beams.
Lisette: Cool! That sounds wonderful! So, I’m just imagining this office with half Beams, half people rolling around and collaborating. That sounds really interesting! What really works about that situation?
Erin: I think it’s the one–to-one representation, and the fact that is easy to use. So, in many of the use cases, when you’re looking at a video conferencing, the big room system, you want a lot of people talking to a lot of people. But, it’s not really that fluid. It’s not really that spontaneous. And it’s not really that empowering or instigating. So, because one of our remote employees has full 24/7 access to a Beam in the office, when they’re remote or when people are away on business travels, or, next week, I’m gonna go work remotely from the East coast because I’m gonna spend time with family, I love having that option.
As I’m working, I’m gonna keep a Beam window up on my computer, and still be part of the office culture. So, they download the software on their computers in Windows or Mac, it is very flexible. And then, they proactively log into the Beam in the place they want to go and they can drive around, they can drive the desk of the person they need to speak to. They can go drive into the factory space or the cafeteria like something people do. Some of the employees just want to hang out with everybody out lunch. And, the Face Time really does help bring the team together a lot closer.
Lisette: Interesting! I can see how that would really work actually, because you have the movement, and like you said, the one-on-one representation. That’s a very interesting part of that. So, what doesn’t work? What’s hard for your team about this situation?
Erin: I’d say it works best when there’s a hub and a spoke. When there is a hub activity in an office or a headquarters, when there’s a building where most of the activity is happening or occurring, or if something needs to be seen, like a factory or a contract manufacturer, the Beam should be placed where there is a central hub of activity and people. And remote employees or the people who are traveling are considered the “spokes”. So, if there’s a place where everybody wishes they could be, then Beam is a great option to bring the people who are contractors, or vendors, or remote employees, or people who might have to stay home sick, they can all visit the center of activity. Where it doesn’t work so well, video chat works, is when the entire team is distributed, and there’s no central office. The Beam works best when there is a central office or building where all the action is happening.
Lisette: And what about in situations where you have 2 teams working in different locations? It’s not everybody remote, but it’s 2 different offices that are remote. What kind of situations do you see there?
Erin: That still really works well because you’re talking about a place. So one of our customers, Square, has Beams in thier Tokyo, New York and San Francisco offices. And so, their team is evenly split between these 3 locations. So, if any individual wants to proactively talk to any individual on their team, similar to walking up to their desks down the hall, they’ll Beam into Tokyo, Beam into New York, and visit the team as if they’re there on the same floor.
Lisette: Awesome! And who are the people that are using this the most right now? I mean, I know musuems, the medical field is always something that gets written about when people are talking about the Beam. I also heard of a kid, I can’t remember which podcast I was listening to, it was either This American Life or Where There’s Smoke, but there was a kid who wasn’t able to go to a public school. And so, he used the Beam in order to got to school, and like, went to the prom, and have sort of semi-normal life even though he was confined to home. So now I am describing all the used cases, but, what else are people using it for?
Erin: A lot of our customers, the people who really need it, it’s people who need that expert, the best person for the job, instantly. So, a lot of people, let’s say, you have a knowledge-base, you have a remote worker, you have an employee or you have a consultant, and you really want that person looking at the issue right away, but they’re unavailable. It’s gonna take a month or a day to fly out. And so, they sometimes compromise with the type of person they have, helping them with the situation. And so, being able to bring the right person at the right time, has been very interesting to a lot of people. A lot of our customers are executives, or VPs, or managers, who business travel a lot. We love business travelers because what they do, is they keep the Beam back at their headquarters. And, when they’re at the hotel, or when they’re out in the coffee shop, or before a customer meeting, they’ll use the Beam to log in to kind of keep up with the home team, see what’s going on. In fact, one of our customers is using it as a sales tool. He has a factory in China. So, he has the Beam in his factory in China. Not only can he have a daily operational meeting, but he’s in a business where people are somewhat suspicious that he’s white-labelling his products, he’s buying it from somebody else, and putting a sticker on it. So he reassures his customers by giving them a factory tour over the Beam, that there’s my logo on the wall, there are your products that’s being made. Hey customer, any time you want to go check on your production or your inventory, or the quality, or you have a question about the dimensions, anything! They may log into the Beam and look at the factory. So this CEO thought that the Beam will only be used for his manufacturing or operational meetings, but instead, he’s using it as a sales tool.
Lisette: Wow! That’s awesome, as a way of building trust with people who can’t be there, maybe, or just to see it or want to see it more often.
Erin: It’s a convenience. Other people are using it for tours on their tech centers. They want to build up the relationship with the customer. But they also understand that it’s not a great use of the customer’s time to take a couple of days to fly to your facility to see it. That may be more of an inconvenience, actually. So now, people can use the Beam in their tech centers, or in their showcase rooms, and give customers walkthroughs remotely, so they can build the trust and it’s all at the convenience of the customer.
Lisette: I can imagine this, I mean one of the major things that keeps coming up that sounds like, is it really saves in time for travel. People who’d need to travel a lot or are travelling a lot, this is a sort of a life saver.
Erin: I think it’s for people who need to be in two places at once. Some people do need to do business travel, but they also have projects going on at headquarters. Some people are managing multiple facilities or teams across different cities. So, instead of spending 50/50 time, you know, half your life at home and the other half of your life in the hotel room someplace else, you can actually operate all of those teams from one central hub, especially if it’s recurring meetings, especially if it’s people you are familiar with, but you feel the face time is very valuable, or you need to be looking at a site or a thing or a place or the factory, our customers feel strongly that now they can Beam in to a place everyday and see how the teams are doing, and manage multiple sites a lot more simply.
Lisette: Yeah! The powerful thing about this is that it gives people a real presence wherever they are, so that you can actually be there physically. And I think, what struck me about the use of the Beam, is that how much people underestimated the importance of the movement and of the presence, that the person was able to move themselves, and turn, and you have the sense that somebody was behind you if you’re in the Beam, there’s that weird sense. So, the engagement is so powerful, and I think it’s really underestimated by most people. Just that movement.
Erin: That’s why we really encourage people to try and use the Beam in order to test it out. We offer test drives for people to zip the Beam and drive it around their office. Me and my team see where the Beam’s produced. But, we’ll say this, we were able to pull some statistics recently. We have a feedback form on the user software, where when people who wish to submit feedback about how they like using the Beam or didn’t like using the Beam, answer a couple of questions about how they felt about the experience. So, a range from strongly disagree to disagree, neutral, agree, strongly agree. And, over the past year or so, say maybe 18 months, we had like 650 responses on that. I was very happy to look at that. Well, we number-crunched it, and it turns out, 90% of the people reall enjoyed the Beam experience, agreed or strongly agreed. 86% would recommend it to a friend, which we love to hear. But, 96% felt that the Beam was very easy to use. And, that’s something that was really rewarding for my engineering team to hear, because we want the technology to be invisible. We don’t want it to be cumbersome; we want it to be very simple, so people can focus on the conversation they’re having on Beam with the people they need to be with, on being together, and getting the job done and not let the technology be a hindrance or a layer between them and an immersive experience in a remote location.
Lisette: Right! I can imagine. One of the main things that actually comes up for people, I think, when I say “what do you dislike about remote working?” is online meetings and conference calls. It’s like the first layer of hell that Dante could’ve maybe designed, that would’ve been the conference call layer had it been around. I mean, people hate it! So, I mean, 96%, that’s a huge win! So, that does really say something.
Erin: I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true. Like I said, “wow! People think this is fun!” And that is what a lot of people loved the experience and that’s why we have somewhat of an open test-drive policy. If anybody wants to try a Beam, we’re more than happy to show you how it works, show people how it works.
Lisette: We’ll highlight your information on how to contact you at the end of the conversation for sure. But, that does bring up something because there is an issue I think with remote working because of all the tools and the technology; there is an issue of technical illiteracy, or at least, “tool-burnout”. People are completely burned out on how many tools they have to use for everything. So, it does say something about the ease of use. But, I guess I’m wondering, what is the resistance then? Why are people resisting the Beam, if they are? I mean, I’m assuming some people think it’s weird, or, I don’t know. What is the resistance?
Erin: I think I have gotten used to hearing people say it’s creepy. But, they never say that when they know the person who is on the Beam. So, we try to focus our demonstrations on communities where people know who is on the Beam. So we love getting Beam up on-stage with a familiar face. Ray Kurzweil did a talk on Beam. He was located in California, and he gave the talk in New York city. The whole community knows who Ray Kurzweil is. Likewise, when it’s their own friends or their own colleagues, the technology blends and it works out really well.
Other hesitations were cost initially. The Beam Pro, our consumer enterprise version is priced at $16,950, that’s because we didn’t compromise on any of the components. It’s robust, it works really well, it works in trade shows (00:15:53), it can handle a beating almost literally. But, we just launched this year the Beam Plus unit, which is available for just under $2000. And, that’s breaking a lot of barriers because $2000 is something that people are willing to roll the dice on, purchase, try out, play with. And, the analogy between the two might be something compared to a bicycle and a car.
The Beam Plus is great for homes, great for smaller environments, it’s appropriately sized for a living room, it works really well, and people are trying it out in their small business environments, which is also great. It will work well for students who wish to go to school. But the Beam Pro, it is a taller, a little bigger, faster, stronger. It is important to be a certain size and height. And, have your face be the same size as it normally would be, in order to have that professional presence in the workplace.
So, the difference between the two are very experiential. Some people might have preferences on one over the other. At least with Beam Plus, if people were curious about the concept to begin with, now they have something that they can just buy and start using.
Lisette: Cool! Super cool concept! So, what do you like about it so much? What excites you about telepresence personally?
Erin: There’s so many things! I’ve been in this industry for over 5 years. I was working at a different start-up in 2010 when, coincidentally, my company at the time, 2 other companies, we basically launched this concept at the same time back in 2010. And, that was really exciting. But what I love is what it can do to help people get the job they need or get the job they want, regardless of where they live.
Imagine a world where, not only from the company perspective, but, let’s say the stay-at-home mom or the employee perspective, or they love living in a certain community, but there’s not many jobs available. And, because the internet, because of remote work, there are certain types of jobs that are available that are knowledge-based, that are somewhat creative jobs. But, there’s a whole service industry that can’t be served by the internet and distributive work, because it requires face-to-face interactions.
So, when thinking about new positions opening up, for example, sales reps and retail, product specialists and retail, imagine if you have a guy who’s approaching retirement, and he used to build kitchens. That was his full-time job; he used to build kitchens, the cabinet-maker, loves what he does, but maybe now his back hurts and he’s semi-retired, but he still wants to work. And then, you have thousands of Home Depot locations across the entire country, who really want to give their customers the best expert when they’re standing beside a cabinet display and they want to buy something.
So, imagine that scenario expanded across the entire world that, for example, the semi-retired cabinet maker living in Alaska can somewhat be on-call or be available at a certain shift to log into and Beam to any home-improvement store in the country. And then, that customer gets to be served by the best knowledge worker.
Lisette: Right! And he gets to share his knowledge and do something that he loves and continue, right?
Erin: It’s a win ad he can still live in his house, he doesn’t have to worry about his hurt back. He can have a job. Home Depot’s customers can be happy. And, that scenario can just sprawl across so many use-cases. I’m personally excited because in working for this company, I get a lot of flexibility. I worked from Italy last year. Next week, I’m going to travel in a family reunion in Boston. And, I’m gonna work from there next week.
So, I get to work at home in my living room as well. And, I can just beam into the office and participate in the office like normal. So, I love the opportunity that it presents itself.
Lisette: The freedom, it sounds like, that it gives you to do the things you want.
Erin: It’s freedom. I want to be there for work, but sometimes, I need to have my body sitting some place else.
Lisette: Sure! For those that love to travel for example, I mean, you can do a work holiday in Italy, like you said, and be able to also work at the same time. And, hang out in Italy for a little while. So it sounds like it could be ideal. Interesting. Are there personality types that are more suitable for the Beam? Like for example, when I beamed into the conference, Infocom, last year, I beamed in with a friend of mine, and we just went around we’re talking to people, and it felt a little bit intimidating the first time I beamed in and it took a little bit of extroverted nature, you know, as we were rolling down the halls, I’m sure there’s two women in robots roaming the halls and I’m sure that’s also attractive and appealing to talk to people like that. But I did feel like it took a certain extroverted nature. Is that the case, or?
Erin: Not really! It kind of depends on where you’re beaming into. So you beamed into Infocom, so the way my company does trade shows for the listeners is we may fly one or two people in the flesh to work the booth. I’m usually there just making sure the Wi-fi runs, it stays up, and everything’s plugged in. But, we have 8 Beams and we have sales reps who live all around the country log into the Beams, and give the product demos on the floor, even though they might be sitting in their respective home.
So last week, we were at Infocom, and we have Beam pilots from California, Utah, New York, and they were all logged into the devices and talking to people on the floor. So, when you logged into a device, you are somewhat part of our showcase and people will probably be expecting you to talk about the product. However, if you were to log into an event as an attendee, for example, we just started a subsidiary called Event Presence. And Event Presence has Beams permanently installed in convention centers.
The first two convention centers are Sta. Clara Convention Center and the Vancouver Convention Center. So, two weeks ago, there was this conference called Augmented Reality World. They sold registration tickets for people to Beam into the tradeshow portions for an hour or two. I also have reporters Beam in, about 60 people have logged into the beam to attend the show.
So, if you’re an attendee at a show where you’re not being presented as the product people want to learn about, you have more freedom to look at things, ask questions, and be yourself. In the office here, if you’re using the Beam in the office, you can be exactly same personality that you are already. These people are already familiar with the Beam, and they are more interested to be familiar with you, but like with all my colleagues, I basically talk to them as much or as little like I would if they were sitting here in the flesh. But, it’s nice to know that they’re readily available if you have a question.
Lisette: Right! It makes it really easy to pair-collaboration amongst anybody. It’s like as if you were in the office. I mean if everybody’s beaming around. Super interesting! I like the idea of you guys having lunch together too! Haha!
Erin: Well, that’s actually a start-up called Human in San Francisco. So Human, this contact manager app for iPhone, they have a no-conference call policy now. Basically, if people need to meet, and some people are remote, don’t use the conference phone; nobody likes it. Actually, I love that YouTube video, a conference call in real life, just being able to see and hear each other and being able to turn left or right so people can see who you’re focusing on, brings you into the room so much more easily. So Human, they insist that if you need to call into a meeting, that you’re gonna be calling into a Beam and join in that meeting face-to-face.
Lisette: Awesome! I love it! I always insist in my video meetings to use video whenever possible just to have the sight. And, if I could, I would also have the movement when possible just to let the people have that experience, because I think it enhances things that much more.
Erin: It’s great for a field of view across the room. So, if there are a couple of remote people to a room where there’s 5 or 10 people, then you can go side to side, you can look at everyone who’s talking. And also, you’ll appear within the whole group. So, if there’s a room system on the wall and you get one person logging in, there might be almost too much attention focused on the person on the screen, or too little. And, it’s really hard to nudge yourself into a seat at the table when you’re on a static room system. Whereas, the Beam really feels like a seat at the table. You are also at the table like everybody else, fully participating as if you’re sitting there in the flesh. And, as mentioned by those survey results, people are enjoying that experience.
Lisette: I can imagine! I interviewed one guy, and he said they tried to hang out and have virtual lunch together, but he was being projected as a huge face on the screen. And he always felt like he was on stage. Or, he didn’t want to eat because he’s on the huge screen where everybody can see everything. It just didn’t work because of that. So you’re right about that. I love it!
Erin: It might be somewhat unintentional, but the somewhat goofiness, or little funniness of Beam kind of brings down the formality, to probably the level that you would want to have around your colleagues. Like you are in the beam, you are being proactive, you are being present, but if you go at a table and do a 360, you’re just going to get everybody in the room laughing along. And that way, you can be part of the room and it’s a peer group and it is focused on the team and what you need to do.
Lisette: Yeah, I can imagine that it really opens up a new brand of office humor too. Wigs and hats and ties, imagine all those kinds of stuff.
Erin: We let our customers do that, a bunch of photos get leaked out in the internet. For example, I think a guy from Google is passing, a remote employee at Google was passing along a bullet bourbon on a tray fast onto the beam, so he’s certainly wondering. We see little bits of clothing, neckties, hats, and what we suggest, if one person is using the Beam all the time, the Beam represents the person, not itself. So if you dress up the beam in a certain way and then you have 10 different people using it, that’s not the personality of the person on the beam. In our ideal world, we want the beam to be invisible. You want the technology to be invisible. If we could create a walking, life-like hologram, that would be basically be our goal for the kind of experience that you want to achieve.
Right now, we are limited, but the video screen, the plastic casing with wheels. And, the design intent is to keep the social norms as they are, as people would expect. And have the technology disappear, so it’s the person and the face. We’ve done a lot of demos. One of the more known ones is Ed Snowden used it to give a TED Talk. Here’s somebody who’s giving a very serious TED Talk about a serious topic. And, he wants to be presented as professional and respectable, but he didn’t want to be presented as an 18ft tall head above the stage, either. Being projected on a large screen, it doesn’t really give intimacy with the audience. So, he used the beam to roll out on the stage, next to Chris Andersen, to give his talk about the state of the internet. And, he felt the Beam was a really good tool for him. And also, the nice thing was, he was able to fully participate in the TED activities afterwards. He went to networking receptions, he rolled around all the halls, you see more photos of him talking to people amongst the crowd. And, it was his way to fully participate in a TED in Vancouver when he had to stay in Russia.
Lisette: Right! Very liberating, I can imagine, to have a real presence somewhere like that. And to be really be able to interact with people, yeah! Awesome! Just Awesome! So, really quickly, I noticed on your LinkedIn profile I wanted to ask about, it says fire spinning and hang-gliding, and you don’t see this everyday on people’s LinkedIn profile. So I wanted to give you the opportunity to talk about it.
Erin: Well, it’s a benefit of San Francisco that most people you work with or most people who’ll want to get to know you. I’vew worked with several startups in San Francisco, and people somewhat connect on the random fun things that you do. So, I used to be a hang-glider pilot; I flew a few years ago. And, fire-spinning is something picked up recently, and it’s a lot of fun to hear the “whoosh” of the fire go by your ear.
Lisette: Oh sure! They’ve nicknamed me the “Cluts”. So, I stay away from fire and things with velocity. So, the Beam is actually a good speed for me.
Erin: Have you done the turbo speed with the Shift key and you know?
Lisette: Even the turbo speed, you have to get used to it, but I can imagine, if you have a long hallway to go down and you need to be somewhere a little bit faster, then that would be very handy.
Erin: Yeah! The Beam has these blue lines that act as visual aids. And so, what we loved doing is pointing them down a hallway and trying to go as fast down the hallway as possible. I find it nice that the Beam drives at a typical walking speed, like probably over 2 miles per hour. And that way, when I’m trying to go down a long hallway like, I actually took the Beams on a tour at Infocom last week, I can walk my normal pace and the beams keeping up with me, and we can just go all along our way.
Lisette: I love the simulation of the presence and trying to make it as human-like as possible. Given the restrictions, which I can imagine given the cost, I mean, if you’re trying to sell this in the market, you can’t have a super expensive life-like replica of a robot; it’s just not gonna work. There’s limitations there. But I think, I’m a huge fan of telepresence, as most everybody that follows me knows. I’m super excited about those kinds of technology. And I think, I get more excited than most people, but I really think, if they just tried it, they would understand. Like they would understand how exciting the movement and the presence really is. I’m personally very excited about this.
Erin: It’s gaining traction. Last week was our 3rd Infocom. And, the 1st one we went to, people were wondering “what is this thing?” The 2nd one was last year, they were looking for more validation. This year because we’ve been out, we’ve had big customers, we have customers who tell their friends they love it. And, the word of mouth is getting out that the trade-offs between being easy-to-use and what is, has been a nice balance on our engineering side. And, it is exciting because we can change the world, and help change the world a little bit by giving everybody access to different types of jobs, locations, getting people with disabilities access to their communities and museums, and giving them a chance to engage with their world as well. It has been really rewarding.
Lisette: Oh yeah! I can imagine! I think it’s super exciting! The opportunities are completely over the top. I think, for everybody who has questions or want to know more, you can tweet now or in the future to #remoteinterview. And Erin, if people want to learn more about you and the Beam and getting contact for a robot tour, you must do it everybody! Get in contact. So where will they find you?
Erin: Suitabletech.com. Or, what might be easier is #beam on any social media network: Twitter,Instagram, Facebook. We’ve been posting that hashtag and I see photos of people on beams and interacting with each other. Then, that will help you link back to our website.
Lisette: Awesome! Super exciting! So, is there anything that I missed today that I should’ve asked if people wanted to know more about telepresence?
Erin: I think we covered a fair amount. I just want to reiterate that it’s a technology worth experiencing. What we found is that people really need to experience it in order to understand its potential. But, as more people are using it, as I mentioned 6 students. I talked about this one woman who is bed-ridden in Maryland, and she’s gained her computer science degree in robotics. And her goal is to create better technologies for herself to help her live a better life. And, she’s in Maryland and I got invited to some Robotics in San Francisco. So, I’ve just been bringing the Beam with me to these events and inviting her. And, she’s been meeting more people in her community, research collaborators, other companies who can sponsor her work, out here on the West Coast, because the Beam has given her the ability to do virtually leave her bedroom when her body wouldn’t really let her do that. So, knowing that we can all expand this capability across the world and the technology is here, I say, let’s get excited and let’s start using Beam.
Lisette: Yeah! Think of the great things we can do together and the advancement of evolution just based on getting the right people together. Totally awesome!
Erin: There’s so many ideas, it’s gonna be great!
Lisette: Yeah! Totally awesome! I think you guys are really changing the world for the better. So, I hope that people get in contact. Alright! We’ll end it here and until next time everybody! Be powerful!