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Exploring Robots for Accessibility, in Seattle

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
Every year CFM organizes a glimpse of the future in AAM’s own section of MuseumExpo at the annual meeting. Last year we explored 3D printing. This year we are hosting demonstrations of several technologies related to accessibility and to the internet of things. Today’s guest post is by accessibility advocate Henry Evans, who makes the case for one of the technologies we will profile at the meeting: telepresence robots. There’s more information on the demo (and how you can interact with robots at the annual meeting, whether or not you are attending) at the end of this post.

We are on the precipice of a brave new world as it relates to museum accessibility.  Bedridden people, including the elderly and disabled (like me) were until recently confined largely to their bedrooms. Now, with the new Remote Presence Devices that have been and are being developed, it is possible  to virtually wander through museums in Australia and then, five seconds later, in The San Francisco  Bay Area in Northern California.  More museums are coming online soon, and even more—from all over the world—are interested.  With some devices, like the Beam from Suitable Technologies, the bedridden person can actually drive throughout the museum by remote control, hearing and seeing everything as if they were there. It quite literally opens a whole new world for them.

The same holds true for elderly people who are confined to elder care facilities and for anybody in the world who, for economic or other reasons, is confined by their geography,  and who wants to stroll through the great museums of the world.

By virtue of the worldwide publicity our TEDTALK received, I met, via the Internet, quite a few severely disabled people from all over the world. Two of them became very interested in the remote museum tour programs and proceeded to actually take remote tours. I asked them to pen a few words about their experiences.

First, from Mantvis in Lithuania :
I have been interested in new technologies all my life. Toys, computer games, all kinds of computer software, etc. After I injured my neck and became quadriplegic, I stayed in intensive care for about 2 months. When I was released from ICU, one of the first things my parents bought me was a Jouse (a combination of a joystick and a mouse) – a device that enables me to operate a computer with my mouth. I would have hardly been able to live without a computer before my accident – and even more so after the accident.
Henry and Mantvis, via Beam, in front of the
Babbage Difference Engine at CHM

So, when I saw a TED video of Henry operating robots, I said – I also want to operate robots!  It did not take too long to contact Henry. Thanks to him and other dedicated people at Suitable Technologies, I soon had the opportunity to drive a remote presence device in the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California – half a world away! 

NMA’s robots: Chesster
and Kasparov

Then Henry and I toured The National Museum of Australia, hosted by Robert Bunzli, which means I traveled around the world sitting in my wheelchair. 

You can contact Kate McGregoreducation programs consultant at the Computer History Museum for more information [Kate’s program is still in the pilot stage], and read about the NMA’s robot tours program I am sure Kate and Rob would be glad to take you from your armchair.

 Because I am very lucky to have wonderful parents who take excellent care of me, robots for me are more a source of recreation than a vital necessity (which make them no less amazing and fascinating!). With the help of my parents, relatives and friends, I go to concerts, theaters, cafes and restaurants. However, I still cannot travel more than a 100 or 200 miles with my van. That’s where remote presence systems come in. Neither distance nor time matter anymore.

All of this will make life much more enjoyable, not just for me but for millions of bedridden people.  Remote presence systems can offer education (or amusement) for many people, who simply cannot afford traveling. I believe the most important thing is to ensure the universal availability of technology, so that no one is left behind.
Mantvydas Juoza
Vilnius, Lithuania

And from Stuart, in England:

A week ago I learnt about the most famous horse in Australia [whose name, I learnt, is Phar-Lap]. I wasn’t in Australia; I was in my bedroom, where I’ve been for six years. My wheelchair won’t fit through the door. But with a computer, a reasonably fast broadband connection, and a remote presence robot I can go anywhere. It’s dizzying.

The museum tours are a precious thing to me. They give me agency to be able to explore in a way that I wouldn’t be able to otherwise. They expand my horizons. Right now I can see out of my window a tree, a slice of sky, the terraced houses up to the bend in the road. I can’t see round the bend in the road; I can’t go further. It doesn’t matter how much I would like to visit a museum, if my wheelchair can’t leave the house then neither can I. Or couldn’t, until now. But beyond what these robots can do for people with profound disabilities, I also deeply love the other uses this technology so evidently has. It’s going to allow children in sub-Saharan Africa to visit the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and children in Canberra to visit the Computer History Museum in California. It is a loosening of constraints, a freeing up of the world for all kinds of people.

I, for one, welcome the new Robot Museum Touring Programs!
Stuart Turner
Manchester,  England

I share the optimism of these two gentlemen.  I am  99.9 percent quadriplegic, and fully unable to speak.  And although it is possible, with a great deal of effort [not on my part  🙂 ] , to physically bring me to a museum,  it is 1000 x easier to just press ‘Connect ‘ on my computer from the comfort of my own home,  PARTICULARLY  if the museum is half a world away!

One thing I will point out, as you try out these devices.  If you are able bodied, don’t forget that while you may be inclined to compare the experience to physically walking around a museum,  to a primarily bedridden person it represents freedom.  Things look different when your other option is to watch reruns – again!

Remote presence devices open up another exciting opportunity – to keep museums open all night to accommodate virtual visitors from the other side of the world. Museums with remote presence devices are open to anyone in the world with Internet – about 2 billion people.  

All of this access raises some very important issues though; any curator should be concerned about Beams running into valuable artifacts.  Luckily, there are several methods to protect artifacts using electronic and/or unobtrusive, aesthetic physical barriers.  The de Young Museum, of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, is leading the way by working closely with Suitable Technologies to devise an acceptable, field tested solution.  Please join us in making museums safely accessible to everyone in the world!

Henry tours the de Young Museum, with Charlie Castillo,
director of human resources & administration
Skip over related stories to continue reading article

For more information about how people are developing technologies to assist the handicapped, please visit Robots for Humanity.

 If you are joining us at the Alliance annual meeting in Seattle in two weeks, you’ll have a chance to log in to telepresence robots at the de Young, the National Museum of Australia and other museums from stations in the Alliance’s resource center in MuseumExpo, and chat with Charlie Castillo, director of human resources and administration at the de Young Museum, about their foray into tele-accessibility, and with staff from Suitable Technologies about their work.  

If you won’t be joining us in Seattle (due to issues of mobility, geography, or economics) contact Vanessa Jones here at CFM to sign up to “beam in” and control a robot from Suitable Technologies that will be roaming the Expo.There are a limited number of time slots available on the Beam, so please email us soon. As Henry notes, this technology is in its infancy–input from you and your colleagues can help smooth the rough patches and speed the rate of adoption, providing another way for museums to be accessible to diverse audiences.

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  1. Hi Vanessa,

    I would absolutely love to join you via the Beam robot at the Expo!

    Stuart Turner

  2. Hi Stuart! Thanks for contributing to the blog post–it is much appreciated. I think we have your email address via Henry, but just in case, please email Vanessa at to be sure.

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