Cool Businesses Innovation

Beam store on University Avenue gives Palo Alto a glimpse into a robotic future

can Palo Alto's focus on innovation help address our emission reduction goals?

From the outside, the Beam store at 425 University Avenue looks just another Palo Alto tech start up, with its white couches and brightly-colored carpet. But Beam is different in one important respect: there are no people.

Instead, the store is ‘staffed’ by employees located in remote locations around the country (and in some cases around the world) who talk to potential customers through robots that are equipped with screens, speakers and wheels that allow for full mobility and conversation. Customers in the Beam store are often startled when what appears to be a computer starts moving towards them, asking, “Can I help you?” or “What brings you into the store today?”

Beam products, made by a local Palo Alto company called Suitable Technology, are so new and unique that the company took the unusual step of opening a ‘popup’ store where people could engage with the mobile robots. “Beam needs to be experienced,” said Erin Rapaki, Director of Marketing for Suitable Technology. “In the Palo Alto store, people can interact with Beam products, which increases interest in and ease with the technology. It’s been such a success that we are opening another location in the Westfield Mall in San Francisco.”

Brianna and Kima, two employees in the Beam 'popup' store on University Ave

Brianna and Kima, two employees in the Beam ‘popup’ store on University Ave

The original Beam product (the BeamPro), was designed for businesses and comes with many features and a steep price tag (about $16,000). However, interest in the product was so high from consumers that Suitable Technology decided to create a more basic version (the Beam+) designed for home use, which will begin shipping in early March 2015 and sell for about $2000.

So is Beam just another Silicon Valley gadget? Time will tell, but gauging by the many ways that the products are being used by both commercial and home customers, it looks like something much more revolutionary.

Want to visit with an elderly relative or check in on your family during a business trip? Turn on your computer and drive your Beam+ over the couch to have a conversation and say hello.

Want to visit a factory in Asia but tired of travel? Fire up your BeamPro and zoom around the factory floor to monitor production and make sure things are on track.

Long to visit the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco but can’t get to there due to physical limitations? Drive a BeamPro through the museum to see the galleries and enjoy the art.

Celebrity fugitive Edward Snowden also used Beam to give an interview at TED in 2014.

Chris Anderson interviews Edward Snowden via Beam at TED 2014. Photo credit: robohub

Chris Anderson interviews Edward Snowden via Beam at TED 2014. Photo credit: robohub.

While the Beam robots seem weird and futuristic at first, after a few minutes in the Beam Store in Palo Alto, most people end up chatting with the employees and almost forgetting the technology is there.

“People are initially intimidated and even scared, but they get used to talking to a robot,” explains Brianna, a media manager for Suitable Technology. “And now we have regulars that stop in every morning with a cup of coffee to say hi. We’ve also been know to roll across the street to Cream and surprise people by treating them to cookies and ice cream via remote payment.”

The Beam Store on University Avenue will be closing in April, so there are a few weeks left to experience this new technology in person and decide for yourself: do these robots portend an exciting new world or a terrifying new reality?

These young shoppers thought Beam was nothing but cool, especially when the robot dispensed free candy

These young shoppers thought Beam was nothing but cool, especially when the robot started dispensing candy

Maybe it’s the free ice cream, but Palo Alto Pulse is keeping an open mind for now.

About the author

Victoria Thorp

Victoria Thorp

Victoria is the founder and editor of Palo Alto Pulse and has lived in Palo Alto since 2007. Victoria's diverse professional background includes working as the editor of GreatSchools.org , as a senior writer for KIPP and Teach for America, and as a radio producer for City Visions on KALW (91.7FM San Francisco). She is a graduate of Leadership Palo Alto and a member of the Palo Alto Partners in Education Advisory Board.

She has a BA in English from Tufts University and Masters in Education and Secondary Teaching Credential in English from UCLA.