"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.
A few years ago, he moved back to his native Indiana to raise his family, but he found it difficult to collaborate with engineering colleagues using existing video-conferencing systems.
"I was struggling with really being part of the team," Goecker said. "They were doing all sorts of wonderful things with robotics. It was hard for me to participate."
So Goecker and his colleagues created their own telepresence robot. The result: the Beam and a new company to develop and market it.
At $16,000 each, the Beam isn't cheap. But Suitable Technologies says it was designed with features that make "pilots" and "locals" feel the remote worker is physically in the room: powerful speakers, highly sensitive microphones and robust wireless connectivity.
The company began shipping Beams last month, mostly to tech companies with widely dispersed engineering teams, officials said.
"Being there in person is really complicated — commuting there, flying there, all the different ways people have to get there. Beam allows you to be there without all that hassle," said CEO Scott Hassan, beaming in from his office at Willow Garage in nearby Menlo Park.
Not surprisingly, Suitable Technologies has fully embraced the Beam as a workplace tool. On any given day, up to half of its 25 employees "beam" into work, with employees on Beams sitting next to their flesh-and-blood colleagues and even joining them for lunch in the cafeteria.
Software engineer Josh Faust beams in daily from Hawaii, where he moved to surf, and plans to spend the winter hitting the slopes in Lake Tahoe. He can't play pingpong or eat the free, catered lunches in Palo Alto, but he otherwise feels like he's part of the team.
"I'm trying to figure out where exactly I want to live. This allows me to do that without any of the instability of trying to find a different job," Faust said, speaking on a Beam from Kaanapali, Hawaii. "It's pretty amazing."