There are many young children out there who would, on a typical day, rather not go to school. But for Devon Carrow, a second-grader in New York, going to school might well mean his death. Carrow has what's known as eosinophilic esophagitis, as well as anaphylactic shock syndrome - the combination of which can produce potentially fatal reactions to a laundry list of common items, including milk and peanuts. That's not the kind of thing that commonly makes for a happy life for most kids his age, but for Carrow, a new set of horizons have opened up thanks to the unusual expedient of a telepresence robot.
The telepresence robot in question known as the VGo, a four foot tall wheeled wonder with a wireless video hookup and a video screen near where a child's head would normally be, allows Carrow to participate in at least something like an elementary school experience. The robot takes a position in the classroom, allowing Carrow to hear the teacher's lessons, move through the halls, enjoy time "outside" at recess and even perform in the school's auditorium.
As impressive as this is by itself, giving a sick kid the opportunity to attend school as if nothing were wrong, perhaps the most impressive part is how little this seems to mean to the kids. They, for their part, have essentially accepted the robot as Devon Carrow. One little girl even took the opportunity to tell Carrow a quick joke before class started. Even Carrow himself doesn't seem terribly fazed by the whole affair, regarding the act of steering the four-wheeled VGo unit through the halls successfully as little more than another computer game with the objective of getting from point to point and surviving another day.
Telepresence robots like the VGo, meanwhile, have attracted interest from other segments of society, including businesses looking to reduce travel expenses yet still have something like that face-to-face contact as well as doctors who need a way to connect with patients in remote areas. Considering that the robot itself costs around $6,000--there's also a $100 monthly service charge--it's becoming more accessible to schools, hospitals and businesses as it goes along. Moreover, the robot itself weighs just 18 pounds, making it easy for virtually anyone to lift and move should such a situation prove necessary.
While some may question the value of a telepresence experience over the "real thing"--as well they could; it's certainly not the same thing, only a close approximation--there's no doubt that it's having a lot of impact. Not only is Carrow getting an experience he otherwise would have been denied thanks to his illnesses, but his classmates--indeed, his teachers--are getting a first-hand look at, and experience with, a whole new breed of technology that's fundamentally changing the world as we, and they, know it.
There will be some, of course, who question the value in spending a hefty chunk of cash up front and regular maintenance fees to bring one child into a classroom where students may well be using textbooks older than they are--the three "R's" of education generally don't include "robotics"--but the circumstances of the whole affair certainly put some support on the robot's side. The wider value should also be considered here, as there's plenty of learning going on. Not just the stuff that's coming out of the textbook, either, but also about one sick little boy and the value of technology.
Edited by Amanda Ciccatelli