A Comforting (Tele)Presence

How a timely technology purchase eased Peter Brewer’s mind after a serious accident

Published in 2017 Northern California Super Lawyers — August 2017

One spring day last year, Peter Brewer passed a pop-up shop selling telepresence robots, sometimes dubbed “Skype with wheels.” The Palo Alto real estate lawyer, never one to resist new technology, bought one and set it up in his office, planning to use it from home to “meet” with colleagues and clients.

Two days later, Brewer was riding his motorcycle near the Stanford University campus when he was hit by a vehicle, went briefly airborne and was knocked unconscious. During his recovery, which took more than half a year, the $2,000 Beam robot, made by Suitable Technologies, would become a lifeline to his practice. 

Though his helmet saved his life, Brewer suffered severe brain bleeding and spent more than a week in the intensive care unit at Stanford Medical Center. Surgeons inserted multiple titanium rods into his shattered left elbow and arm. “Titanium is at an all-time high price, so for the first time now, I have a salvage value,” Brewer says with a smile. “I told my wife that when I die, she can’t just drag me over to the mortuary. She’s got to take me down to the recycling center first.”

Jokes aside, Brewer endured a frustratingly slow recovery. At first, the technophile couldn’t recall how to perform basic functions on his phone. He has no memories of friends visiting his hospital room. 

Also discouraging was being away from the firm he founded in 1995. “All of a sudden, bam!” Brewer says. “You’re in the hospital and you’re flat on your back, and you say, ‘But I’ve got to go meet this client just now.’ No, you don’t.”

Stuck at home, Brewer remembered the Beam. Using the same technology as a self-driving car, it runs on a Wi-Fi or cellular network and has a high-resolution screen roughly the size and height of a user’s face, multiple microphones and a rechargeable battery.

Brewer opened the app on his iPad and began gliding around the six-lawyer office to occasionally check in with his colleagues. 

The Beam-enabled visits reassured him. “I did feel more connected,” he says. “I wasn’t as isolated or displaced.”

Most of the devices the company has sold since the Beam’s 2013 release were to businesses, but other uses include helping physically disabled students “attend” college, and concerned family members check in on elderly relatives.

When he returned to his office in person, Brewer reports, all was well: “I was really proud of these guys. The place was running like a Swiss train. There was more money in the bank when I got back than when I left.”  

Now pain-free and back to his usual routine, Brewer says the experience has left him with one lasting change: a profound compassion for the disabled.

He hasn’t shelved the telepresence robot. Brewer fires up the Beam so he can “appear” in the office earlier than his typical mid-morning arrival. Should any of his lawyers leave the Bay Area but want to continue their employment, he says, they will get to access it as well.

For now, the lifelong motorcycle enthusiast is driving to work in his car and avoiding riding his Vespa and two BMW motorcycles. He jokes that he and his wife have different opinions about whether he will ride them again. 

Eventually, Brewer predicts, telepresence robots will be welcome in the courtroom. He notes that some judges already permit attorneys to make telephonic “appearances” for minor hearings. “I can only imagine it’s not far off,” he says. “Probably around the time that we’re all flying to the office in drones.”

 


 

Peter Brewer’s Tips for Videoconferencing

Position the screen slightly above your face. If users place the laptop on a table, Brewer says, “the camera is directed at their wattle, and it’s not the most flattering perspective.” 

 

For an office teleconference, mount the camera atop a flat-screen monitor attached to a wall; make sure all participants are visible on the screen.

 

Try videoconferencing first with a friend; you might be surprised at how easy the technology has become to use.

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