Texas Student Attends School as a Robot – A Sign of Things to Come

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Lyndon Baty School Robot

The Vgo robot is Lyndon Baty's passport to a real high school experience.

Freshman Lyndon Baty’s immune system is so fragile he can’t risk being surrounded by people his own age, yet he attends classes at his high school in Knox City, Texas every day. All thanks to a robot. The Vgo telepresence platform is a four foot tall bot on wheels with a small screen, camera, speakers and microphone at the top. Baty logs into the robot remotely from his home, using his PC and a webcam to teleconference into his classes. Baty can drive Vgo around his school, switching between classes just like regular students. For a boy that has spent much of his life sick and isolated from his peers, Vgo not only represents a chance at a better education, it’s also an opportunity for freedom and comradery. Learn more about his story in the local news segment video below. Lyndon Baty’s circumstances may be far from typical, but stories like his are going to become much more common in the future as telepresence robotics makes its way into the mainstream.

Baty’s situation is a rare combination of marketing, bad/good timing, and innovative thinking from school officials. The young man has polycystic kidney disease and recent treatments have left his immune system too damaged for him to attend school directly. Representatives from Vgo contacted the Knox City school district to offer their services. While attending school through a robot isn’t quite the same as being there in person, you can tell from Lyndon’s smile in the following video that Vgo is a more than welcome improvement in his life:

While we haven’t covered the Vgo robot in the past, it reminds me of several other telerobots we have seen, especially Anybot’s QB. Only Vgo is supposedly retailing for around $6000 (including ~$1200/year for the service contract), considerably less than the QB’s $15k price tag. Differences in maneuverability, reliability, and video quality may make the cost difference appropriate, but that’s not really my concern. Vgo is representative of the telerobotics market as a whole right now: reasonable run times (battery life is between 6-12 hours depending on upgrade options), Skype-level video quality, and compatible with standard WiFi. If you can afford the $6k (or $15k) price tag, you can probably have this setup in your home or office right now. In other words, this isn’t the technology of tomorrow, it’s here today and ready to go. Vgo launched sales in 2010 and has been marketing their product to a variety of applications, as you’ll see in the following video:
(My apologies for the poor embedding of this video player.)

Not to sound cynical, but I’m guessing that Lyndon Baty’s use of Vgo is just another part of that marketing plan. I’m totally fine with that, by the way. Giving a child (and a school district) a reasonable solution for a terrible predicament is great. If it comes with a moderate price tag, so be it. So, while Lyndon’s personal story of perseverance and increasing freedom is exceptional, the underlying technological implications are pretty mundane: telepresence is gearing up to try to make a big splash in the market.

We’ve seen plenty of indications of this. South Korea is testing telerobots in their schools. They could have one of these devices in every kindergarten classroom by 2013. Researchers in Japan are experimenting with robots aimed towards emotional connections (with mixed results). As we said above, Anybots has their own platform on the market already. iRobot recently unveiled a prototype robotic platform that would transform any teleconference-enabled tablet computer into a telerobot. I’m guessing that in the next five years, one or more of these attempts at telerobotics is going to actually gain some traction and start moving some serious product.

Education may be a natural market. As we learned from Fred Nikgohar, head of telerobotics firm RoboDynamics, there are some big hurdles in other applications of telepresence robots. Offices value secrecy. Medical facilities worry about patient privacy. There’s a lot of bureaucracy standing in the way of widespread adoption of telerobotics. Schools have some of the same problems, but (to be perfectly honest) they also have sick kids who you can’t say no to. Or they’re run by governments who have nationalistic goals in science and technology (exemplified by South Korea). Get the price of telerobotics low enough, and we could see it expand into different niches of education including homeschooling, remote expert instructors (like the English tutors in South Korea), or online universities.

I’m hoping that these early applications for telepresence will keep driving the price down. $15k is way too much for home use. Even $6k is an order of magnitude too large. Given that kind of option we’ll always default to the $30 webcam and Skype video conferencing, even if it’s not mobile.

But give us a $500 telerobot and things could change considerably. Remotely controlling a robot while talking to someone in a far off location is an amazing opportunity. I’d love to visit my distant family members every week if I could actually roll around and interact them in a more ‘natural’ way.

Hopefully Vgo and other telepresence companies will continue to gather momentum in the years ahead and push their products into the mainstream. If we can make them cheap enough, the benefits of telerobotics will sell themselves. The mobility that comes with a telerobot is something that sets it head and shoulders above video conferencing on a laptop. It transforms a restricting experience into a freeing one. Just ask Lyndon Baty.

*Special thanks to Frank Whittemore for helping research this article.

[screen capture credit: KFDX News]

[sources: Vgo, KFDX News]

Discussion — 56 Responses

  • Anonymous February 2, 2011 on 4:28 pm

    I really think the price for telebots like the one portrayed here will plummet in price fairly quickly. Then the 6000 dollar ones a few years from now will have additional features, such as manipulators and a ‘head’ that can swivel independently of the body, perhaps with AI built in that can respond automatically to certain cues from the environment. Then a few years later perhaps even bipedal locomotion.

    • pk February 2, 2011 on 5:06 pm

      That the price will plummet is quite certain. $6000 for a wireless webcam on wheels is simply overpriced.
      Find a robotics department at some university and the students there could probably marry off the shelf wheels to an off the shelf laptop for much less(batteries, connectivity and charging station etc included.)

      And that would come with the added benefits that you can show youtube videos and play games with your classmates.

      • Kevin pk February 2, 2011 on 11:15 pm

        Speaking as someone who has helped made a robot on wheels with a laptop and camera (http://jotux.com/images/dense%20space%20robot/target71.html), yes, it’s a bit cheaper to do this as a hobby. The problem is that it’s not really scalable per se, since we used surplus wheelchair motors (~$300) which aren’t easy to source, hobby motor controllers ($150), an acrylic waterjet cut frame ($300) that wasn’t very durable, sealed lead-acid batteries ($80), and a laptop strapped on ($1000). There’s a price to pay for engineering a product rather than just a proof of concept. I imagine there’s some kind of decent software as well that they ship with to control it. What I made was a c# app that I knocked out in a couple hours that controlled the motors over a serial port. Look at how slick the QB looks, and look at the picture above. That’s what the 6k buys you.

  • Sanford Dickert February 2, 2011 on 5:05 pm

    I would suggest that there is a balance between features, cost and effectiveness – we will see lower cost systems (see the MantaroBot at $3500) and there are efforts underway to bring about sub-$1K systems. But in the realm of hardware development, the cycles are at least 18 months to go from design to manufacturable product in any great number.

    I estimate that the breakthrough will happen in the next three years – with a number of missteps along the way. I have been discussing the Future of Remote Presence on pilotpresence.com and invite you to join the discussion as well.

  • Anonymouse February 2, 2011 on 9:48 pm

    This story has just been added to the slashdot front page. Fortunately hardly anyone reads slashdot anymore so you probably don’t have anything to worry about. Congratulations though on getting your article noticed there.

    • Jrbusychild Anonymouse February 3, 2011 on 12:07 am

      “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.” – Yogi Berra

  • Aaron Ortiz February 2, 2011 on 10:11 pm

    What a great idea! Still, I wonder if the robot will be targeted for bullying or vandalism. Let’s hope Lyndon’s parents have prepared him for that possibility.

  • snark-de-triomphe February 2, 2011 on 11:09 pm

    I see bullying in this bot’s future. Knock it down, lock it in a locker… How easy. No one would hear the cries for help.

    • morguefile snark-de-triomphe February 3, 2011 on 10:11 pm

      This was my first thought, how long before the football team decides to see how far they can punt it or someone tapes a porno picture to the camera. (god I hated high school)

  • TyrantKing February 2, 2011 on 11:14 pm

    Sheldon’s was cooler.

  • John Blackthrone February 3, 2011 on 12:19 am

    What a superfluous waste of time. If you want to create remote classrooms for attending and home students why don’t you implement a broadcast system. Every class room will have cameras focused on the board while the teacher is going through the motions. Sure teaching might have to change a little as we know it, but that would be a much more approachable system, a virtual and non virtual classroom combined. Think about how much energy is required to run that piece of crap on wheels.

    • Adam L John Blackthrone February 3, 2011 on 4:49 am

      This isn’t just about remote education, but providing the kid a sense of being there, interacting with peers. It might be removed, but it’s far better than his frail body can otherwise do. Having that sense of ‘being’ and forging relationships is a key factor to what this provides.

      • John Blackthrone Adam L February 7, 2011 on 1:34 am

        That’s a good point Adam and I didn’t look at it that way. My initial point was directed at the line “A sign of things to come”. I guess this could be interpreted as “A sign of things to come for individuals with no immune system”. The school I attended had wheelchair access and a variety of features to accommodate for some of the students in our year. I just see this as a very niche item and not “A sign of things to come”

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Joe Murray February 3, 2011 on 1:01 am

    Eventually won’t we have a room full of ‘bots instead of people? Think PTA meetings. Seems a bit silly. A better experience would be web conferencing. Maybe the push of web conferencing to the home is next. Most of us are comfortable using it at work.

  • Attendee February 3, 2011 on 2:42 am

    Sadly, I think I’d be the first one in the office to follow around behind it with my middle finger prominently displayed. Sheesh. I understand web conferencing, but if an employee already has a computer in their office, then CONFERENCE, don’t send a creeper around. I like it for education (re: the kid), but it’s a little weird to see in a factory. Get off your duff and visit your employees.

  • Isalia2 February 3, 2011 on 12:36 pm

    Why don’t we use these things for offices as well? It would save miles of traffic, prevent huge amounts of polution and bring more energy to workers who need to travel far.

  • Masa February 4, 2011 on 8:25 am

    Hinokio!!!

  • Ma_hurt February 4, 2011 on 4:17 pm

    Don’t get me wrong, that is amazing. But to truly be useful, it needs to be able to climb stairs also.

  • Ivan Malagurski February 9, 2011 on 3:33 pm

    Wow, what a great use of robotics…

  • Mohammed Abdelghany February 10, 2011 on 10:05 am

    great
    the price is too high

  • Ibrozubairu March 22, 2011 on 10:03 pm

    Wow, for one who loves HI-tech stuff, its painful to be stuck out here in NIGERIA(though its my country)!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!