MILWAUKEE – Shortly before New Year's Day, a 10-person team combed through the 18-story building on Northwestern Mutual's downtown campus here seeking an elusive culprit: the poinsettia plant.
At home, Amy Lamb, who works in the insurer's software development and support area, was waiting to hear the results of their search to determine when she could return to the office. For six years, Lamb has been forced by a severe poinsettia allergy to stay away from her workplace during the holiday season.
"I'm lucky this year," Lamb said. "[My gym] promised me they would keep the gym poinsettia-free, so I can go to the gym, my house and Starbucks."
Lamb's holiday season has also been enhanced by the BeamPro, a 62-inch-tall robot on wheels that she can control from her home computer. Once she's logged on, Lamb gets in front of a Web camera that makes her face visible on the robot's screen. She's then able to move — robotically — around the office.
Using BeamPro, Lamb can attend meetings remotely. She can turn the robot toward whomever is speaking. She's used BeamPro to join her friends for lunch in the cafeteria, and she even participated in a holiday skit.
"The cool thing this year is I actually got to see the poinsettia tree without having a reaction and got to hear the Christmas band," she said.
The BeamPro, made by Palo Alto, Calif-based Suitable Technologies Inc., sells for about $16,000. It is part of the rapidly growing "telepresence" robot market. Annual shipments of such robots, currently at 4,200 units, could reach 31,600 by 2020, estimates Tractica, a market research firm.
Tractica says key markets for the robots are health care, education, and enterprise, where executives, for example, use them to be in multiple places at once, or to tour factories in other parts of the world. In one well-known instance, fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden attended the TED 2014 conference in the U.S. via telepresence robot from Russia.
The technology behind the robots is mature and reliable, said Bilge Mutlu, associate professor of computer science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. So obstacles to more widespread use are the rate of adoption and infrastructure problems, like Wi-Fi coverage, he said.
While telepresence robots aren't the giant leap in communication that an invention like telephones were, they represent an incremental step forward, said Mutlu, whose Wisconsin Human-Computer Interaction Lab is one of the largest in the U.S. that studies this area.
"Our research shows that embodiment adds to collaboration," Mutlu said. "It improves trust over more impoverished versions of communication, such as just audio or video."
Lamb relies on her electronic friends to keep her connected at the office.
"I want my clients and co-workers to be confident I'm still here," Lamb said. "I want them to know I can wheel to their desk in robot form anytime they need me."