As a docent at the San Diego Air and Space Museum, I am familiar with technological achievements in aviation history. But last week I gave a tour actually using a new technology that is best described as a robot for humanity — or a telepresence robot. My job was to give two people far from San Diego a 90-minute tour of the museum.
The device used is called a Beam Pro Presence System from Suitable Technologies (suitabletech.com). Simply referred to as a Beam, the device stands about 5 feet tall with a 20-inch or so monitor above a self-propelling base.
The device is linked to the Internet via Wi-Fi, but the operator is a person with a computer from any location with Internet access. The Beam we had is on loan from the manufacturer just to try it out.
The Beam operator controls the movement by using a computer and can drive it around at walking speeds. It can pivot immediately and a small television camera at the top of the Beam can move up and down, side to side and can zoom in or out to change the field of view.
The face of the operator is projected on the screen and in one corner is the picture of what the Beam is looking at. When I first saw a Beam, I thought it clever and interesting, but mostly of value to classrooms for lectures and the like.
But last week I had the stunning pleasure of giving museum tours to people who are quadriplegics. Both could move their heads around a bit and the young woman could move fingers on her right hand.
The first Beam operator was Henry Evans, who is featured on a TED talk called “Meet the Robots for Humanity.” Henry was at home with his wife, Jane, and we spent about 90 minutes touring the museum.
Because Henry cannot speak, his wife uses a translucent spelling board for Henry to look at the letters and number to spell out words for her to read aloud to me. This is similar to what Stephen Hawking uses and was demonstrated in the movie, “The Theory of Everything.”
As I have learned more about Henry through the TED talk, I see what a remarkable gentleman he is. Check out the talk and you will see why. Incidentally, Henry has visited about 12 museums and like events. He refers to his experience as “Tele-Tourism.”
The next tour was given to a young woman named Kavita from Baltimore. She is in a Ph.D. program involving robotics assisting disabled people at the University of Maryland.
The Beam experience creates a very personal relationship, as I found myself looking directly at her eyes and feeling like she was with me in the museum. From seeing children approach the Beam and talk with whoever is on the other end, it takes only a few seconds to adjust to the person on the other end.
Although I am sure that my two guests enjoyed the tour, I was very moved as a docent to provide something so valuable to people who cannot easily travel. Every museum in the country should have a Beam and I hope San Diego Air and Space Museum can find a donation to buy one or two.