Since the dawn of cultural institutions and entertainment attractions, those with severe mobility limitations have had to sit on the sidelines, denied experiences that the able-bodied often take for granted. Telepresence robots, however, are beginning to level the “playing” field, opening up new places, spaces and opportunities for the disabled, while also forging new educational paths for children and adultsclara rice on a telepresence robot of all abilities.

By Clara Rice, JRA (Jack Rouse Associates)  [Article based on presentation made at the IAAPA 2014 Future Legends Session.] 

The premise of telepresence robotics is simple.  From hundreds (or even thousands) of miles away, someone with a laptop and an Internet connection can control a robot in a remote location.  The robot supports a screen with their face on it, and they can interact with those around them just as if they were in the same physical space.

Early telepresence robots

The earliest robots were used for telecommuting (mostly in Silicon Valley). Basically, they consisted of a Roomba vacuum with a Skype-enabled monitor rigged to it. Today’s models, like Suitable Technologies’ Beam Remote Presence System, are sleeker and more nimble. They usually feature a motorized stand, a 17” monitor, and a wide-angle lens. This helps the controller to avoid obstacles and walls.

Despite their $20, 000 price tag, early corporate adopters say the devices have greatly decreased their travel and accommodation expenses. Furthermore, they have increased employee satisfaction, providing a middle ground between in-office work and telecommuting.  Some companies have even set up cubicles for their telepresence robots. These enable those using the technology to still feel part of the team. They can also easily communicate with those around them.

Office telepresence robot

Henry Evans

The expansion of telepresence robotics’ use in the cultural world can be credited to Henry Evans. He is a mute quadriplegic who suffered a stroke in 2002 at the age of 40.  His movements are limited to his head and one finger. Evans discovered that he could use his head for voice activation and to move a computer’s cursor.  After viewing telepresence robots on a CNN special, he realized the technology could be a game-changer for those with limited mobility.

Evans reached out to robotics engineers at Willow Garage. With them and the Healthcare Robotics Lab at Georgia Tech, he founded Robots for Humanity.  Through Robots for Humanity, Evans discovers ways for the mobility challenged to interact with and explore the world.

Using a Suitable Technologies Beam robot, Henry has visited the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. He has also been to the de Young Museum in San Francisco, and the most recent American Alliance of Museums MuseumExpo.

Henry Evans visits de Young Museum in San Francisco via telepresence robot

This past August, Brazilian animator and polio survivor Paulo Henrique Machado was able to “attend” the 2014 SIGGRAPH conference. He did this via telepresence robotics, interacting with other artists from the hospital he has lived in for 45 years.

Due to the efforts of Henry and Robots for Humanity, those who had never been able to visit cultural institutions can now see works of art, hear musical concerts and enjoy theatrical performances.

The National Museum of Australia

Telepresence robots are not solely being used to accommodate the differently abled.  The National Museum of Australia (NMA) partnered with the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Resource Organization (CSIRO) and the Australia National Museum of Australia telepresence robots Chesster and Kasparov Department of Broadband, Communications and Digital Economy to create two robots, Chesster and Kasparov (named for their chess piece-like appearance – shown right).

The system consists of a semi-autonomous mobile robot. This accompanies a museum educator through the gallery. It streams panoramic video from an omni-directional camera via the museum’s wifi network. Using a standard PC, headset, web-camera, and broadband Internet connection, remote students log in and use a browser-based interface to look around the gallery by panning and zooming within the panoramic image.

Through an integrated video-chat system, students can see, hear, and interact with the educator and each other. Unlike Beam robots, several students connect with a single robot. This makes the system more scalable and cost-effective to the museum and less obtrusive to regular visitors.

In the near future, NMA sees the use of telepresence robots expanding to a curatorial role, showcasing delicate objects, artifacts and artwork to visitors not normally on public display.

A Future with telepresence robots

As the technology of these robots develops, so will their widespread use.  One theme park recently tested telepresence technology. They wanted to ensure that a) it could navigate through the park, b) it could maintain a connection to a wifi or broadband Minnie Mouse hugs telepresence robotsignal, and c) that it was a compelling experience.  The answer to all of these challenges was a resounding “yes”.

Within the next few years, those with mobility issues, who never thought they would see Cinderella’s castle or fly with Harry Potter, will be able to tell enchanted tales with Belle, visit Hogwarts and Springfield, “ride” Cheetah Hunt, or get a hug from Minnie Mouse.

New ADA laws, enacted in 2010, could eventually pave the way for the requirement that cultural facilities purchase telepresence robots. In the meantime, those organizations choosing to adopt the technology are changing the way we think about accessibility and distance learning.    

If you want something, look for options.  If you don’t want it, look for excuses

— Henry Evans