"There are still a lot of questions, but I think the potential is really great," said Pamela Hinds, co-director of Stanford University's Center on Work, Technology, & Organization. "I don't think face-to-face is going away, but the question is, how much face-to-face can be replaced by this technology?"
Technology watchers say these machines — sometimes called remote presence devices — could be used for many purposes. They could let managers inspect overseas factories, salespeople greet store customers, family members check on elderly relatives or art lovers tour foreign museums.
Some physicians are already seeing patients in remote hospitals with the RP-VITA robot co-developed by Santa-Barbara, Calif.,-based InTouch Health and iRobot, the Bedford, Mass.,-based maker of the Roomba vacuum.
The global market for telepresence robots is projected to reach $13 billion by 2017, said Philip Solis, research director for emerging technologies at ABI Research.
The robots have attracted the attention of Russian venture capitalist Dimitry Grishin, who runs a $25 million fund that invests in early-stage robotics companies.
"It's difficult to predict how big it will be, but I definitely see a lot of opportunity," Grishin said. "Eventually it can be in each home and each office."
His Grishin Robotics fund recently invested $250,000 in a startup called Double Robotics. The Sunnyvale, Calif.,-company started selling a Segway-like device called the Double that holds an Apple iPad, which has a built-in video-conferencing system called FaceTime. The Double can be controlled remotely from an iPad or iPhone.
So far, Double Robotics has sold more than 800 units that cost $1,999 each, said co-founder Mark DeVidts.
The Beam got its start as a side project at Willow Garage, a robotics company in Menlo Park where Goecker worked as an engineer.