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Beaming from Bordeaux: How “Mummybot” Can Be Home Each Evening

When UK-based computing researcher James Scott’s wife, Claire Martin, was offered a year-long opportunity to work in Bordeaux, France the only hesitation was leaving her family, which includes two young children, five days a week. James recalled using Beam for a six-month period to attend weekly meetings at Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington headquarters from his home in Cambridge, and immediately thought of Beam to help keep his family intimately connected throughout her absence. Now several months into the arrangement, Beaming from Bordeaux allows “Mummybot” to participate in family life in numerous important ways.

BEAM: Tell us a bit about yourself, and why and how you came to use Beam.

JAMES SCOTT (JS): I live in Cambridge in the United Kingdom, and I am a researcher looking at “ubiquitous computing” – including some work on remote presence. I have used Beam at Microsoft, so I was quite familiar with the device.

When my wife, who’s a cardiologist, got a great opportunity to go work in Bordeaux for a year, I wanted to make sure for the kids, who are five and seven, that she could be around as much as possible. That’s when it occurred to me to get a Beam. I mean, if you work near where you live, then the expectation is you’ll be home for dinner. If you don’t, then you won’t… but Beam changes that. Now there’s no reason Claire can’t be “home” for dinner. But I use Beam, too, when I have to be away for work.

BEAM: What is the benefit using Beam over say, video chat like Skype?

JS: Beam is so different than video chat. Claire can just turn up. She can stand up at the dinner table, and she can go to the piano and help the kids with their lessons. She even helps with homework. Our little one, Amy, puts her reading book on the kitchen counter, and the downward facing camera allows Claire to do the reading with her.

And it’s not just about homework. It’s about asking, “How was your day?” and keeping aware of what’s happening. Kids want to interact with their mum.

CLAIRE MARTIN (CM): The image I see through Beam is good enough to read Amy’s books, and the sound quality is just about good enough to do piano practice, which is a pretty high bar!  

BEAM: How did your kids and other family members react to your wife Beaming in?

JS: It was new for a day, and then it became second nature very quickly, particularly for the kids.

It’s interesting to talk to people about it – some see relying on it as very dystopian. But isn’t the alternative worse? When I’m working late, and I have a half hour I can “go home,” it’s a good solution. Of course it’s always better to be in person, but using Beam to be there is better than Skype, and both are better than nothing at all.

BEAM: Does the Beam have a nickname at this point? What do you and your children call it?

JS: It’s “Mummybot.” And when I’m on it, it’s “Robodaddy.” I can imagine many people nickname their Beams.

BEAM: How has Beam changed your home life and your daily routines?

JS: The fact that she can be there day in and day out, and help – as parents do – is tremendous. When both of you are there, you share the load, you eat together, you have family time. And that’s important.

Typically in evening when I’m trying to make dinner, change the kids’ clothes in their PE bags, and do other chores, it would be impossible to interact with the children at the same time. Claire’s able to move around, thanks to the Beam’s long battery life – and that mobility is key to make the experience work. She’s “home” every evening, between when kids get to the house until bedtime. And she reads the bedtime story.

CM: The kids’ bedroom is on the ground floor, and this means that I can move independently between the living room, the dining room and into the kids’ room. I find the Beam very easy to steer both through my laptop or my phone. The battery life is excellent - in fact, I don’t even know what it is as I haven’t got close to running out, and docking at the charging point at the end of the evening is simple, too.

BEAM: Is there anything that Claire can’t do via the Beam that you wished she could?

JS: Some things are different. Claire wouldn’t watch television with me through the Beam; it doesn’t seem like the obvious thing to do. We can’t play table tennis together (not yet, anyways). And there’s a specific division of labor: I have to do cooking, washing up, fix the PE bags, but Claire will do what she can remotely.

Discipline is also interesting. I’m trying to get the children to respond to Claire on Beam, but it’s easier for them to ignore her. So, weirdly, I’m trying to train them to take instructions from a robot.

BEAM: What has been the most surprising thing about having a Beam at home?

JS: It doesn’t matter where Claire is – she can pop on the Beam. My original expectation was she’d leave work, go to her home in Bordeaux, and Beam in. But actually I think she uses it just as much from her phone, her laptop at work, while on the tram, or wherever she may be. She doesn't have to be in a particular physical place – it’s great you can get on your phone app and just be there.

Amy and Robodaddy

By Amy Scott, age 5½