The Robots Are Coming: An Interview with Jennifer Arseneau on Roaming Telepresence Robots

The robots are coming! The robots are coming! A year ago the Tate Britain ran After Dark, from August 13-17, which they promoted with the following offer: “Control robots roaming around the gallery from the comfort of your sofa.” A few lucky virtual visitors controlled the robots while the masses could virtually follow along.

Since then, these roaming telepresence robots have been popping up all over the place, including the season finale of last season’s TV show, Modern Family:

This summer I learned of the first museum that I’ve heard of putting one of these to work full time (and if you know of others, please send them my way).  So I called Jennifer Arseneau, the general manager of Education and Public Programs at the University of Alaska‘s Museum of the North, in Fairbanks, Alaska, to find out what they were thinking, and how they are using technology to bring people closer together, providing insight into one possible direction for the future of the museum experience.

Jen, welcome to Mooshme. To provide some context, please tell us about your museum.

The Museum of the North is a university museum, but we are also a public institution, and we are a research institution.  So we have natural history collections, cultural history, and fine art.  And all of our curators have joint appointments here at the university, so they teach classes and do research as well as do the typical kind of museum curator things. And we have public exhibits that are viewed by the community as well as tourists from all over the world.

And what are some of the highlights of the collections that you recommend to friends when they’re visiting?

Oh, that’s a hard one.  You know, the things that people are naturally drawn to are our big Brown Bear, who is affectionately call Otto after the first collector for the museum.  There’s Blue Babe, which is a fossilized Bison that is this blue color from vivinite in the soil; it came out of permafrost, frozen soil, so it’s something you really only find in the north.  It has bites from lions on it, which of course, you don’t think about these big cats roaming around Alaska.

So why in the world would you ever need a roaming telepresence robot in your halls, and what you are doing with it?

Well, so people like you can see Blue Babe.

Ooh, can I?

Not yet. We are still in the process of figuring out exactly what we’re going to do with the robot. We’ve done a few things with it that we’ve been really excited about and hope to do more.

UntitledAlaska is, as we all know, really big. And it means that our populous is quite spread out.  We are a state museum.  We, for lots of reasons, feel obligated, compelled to share what we have here with Alaskans all over, whether or not they live in Fairbanks.  So for people that may not be able to travel here, and particularly for school kids that are in villages off the road system, we want to be able to connect them back to the museum that is theirs and that holds their items and their objects in perpetuity.  So hopefully, we’ll be able to use it for that kind of purpose, to connect kids back to collections and letting them see the real thing.

So you’re describing a situation where people who can’t physically come to the museum can virtually tour it by driving one of these robots around the hall?

That’s what we’re envisioning, yeah.  Probably for us, we’re thinking more in a classroom-type setting, so a class doing that collaboratively, so that we reach a lot of people. But we certainly have used it on a one-on-one type basis.  We used it to have a science educator, marine biologist outreach specialist, connect back to the museum because she was not in Alaska any longer, and so she connected for a Science Day. 

And we also used it for a former collections manager from the museum to connect when we had an exhibit opening so she could see all her hard work bear fruit and chat with people about the collections that she had firsthand knowledge about.  So we’ve used it for the one-on-one as well.

So when you had the scientist – I was going to say Skyping in, but that’s not the word.


Do you have a term for it yet, when you have someone using the device?

Gosh, I don’t know.  We just say, “use the robot.”

So when you had the scientist using the robot, were they there to talk to the visitors or to essentially interact with the museum content as a visitor?

To chat with the visitors. On this Science Day, we were highlighting this research vessel, the Sikuliaq, which is an ice-breaker, ice-capable ship that’s doing research in the arctic.  And so we invited a scientist who had been on board the ship to come here. And then Anne was one who we thought would be a great person.  She loves to talk about her work and is very good at it, but wasn’t here.  So we had a scientist in-house chatting with people, and then we had Anne join us in-house via the robot.

It was interesting to see the difference in how people connected to the person who was really here versus the person who was, you know, here via the robot.  It was just kind of interesting because I think, actually, Anne had it easier for breaking the ice – well, that sounds terrible, with the Sikuliaq! – but for breaking the ice with visitors.  Because people are so attracted to the robot.  There’s no uncomfortableness of How do I start this conversation?  How do I ask you about marine biology, or oceanography, or something I may not know anything about.  It just starts with, Where are you?  How are you moving that robot? And then from there, she was able to go into speaking about the science and the kinds of things she had done.

So I felt like it was actually easier for her than if she were still here.

So the fact that it’s this actual unusual robotic avatar, so to speak, actually made it easier for the scientist to connect with visitors.  But once they made that connection, were the visitors able to get past the questions about the robot, such as how do you move and hear me, and to be able to engage with them as a person?

It depended on the person, but I think, in a big way, that she really was able to connect.  You know, actually, one of our curators was one of the people to say, “That’s just too weird.”  You know, just as soon as he saw the robot. “That’s too strange of a thing. I don’t know about that. I don’t know if that’s the future we want, that that’s the direction we want to go.” But then he just observed her at work, and by the end, he said, “That was really cool.  That was really neat.” So for some people, it was kind of just, How do I feel about this technology in our lives?  But for the most part, I think people were drawn to it, and then they just wanted to actually chat in the normal way you would about people’s work, or who they are, or where they come from.

So they were able to get to the point of viewing the robot as a representation of the person?

Yes, really quickly.  Really quickly.

That’s great. You’ve now described two ways that you’ve used the robot.  One was to give people access to your collections who can’t come to the museum, and one was to bring content into the museum, such as a scientist so people in the museum could connect with something that wasn’t physically there. Right, right. Have you come across any other ways to use these roaming telepresence robots?

You know, well, we’ve certainly also just used it for colleagues to visit with us you know, at meetings and be a part of the meeting in a different way than what Skype allows.  They can be at our meetings, and if she’s on the robot, then she can actually, as we say, turn her head, look around the conference room table, and be able to see who’s speaking. When you’re on a laptop computer via Skype, you’re in a fixed viewpoint, and you don’t have the control.  You can ask somebody to move you, but you don’t have that choice yourself.  And so if you’re trying to read facial expressions and really feel like a true participant in the meeting, it can be limiting.  So we’ve used it a bit for that, but not to a large degree.

Are there other examples you can share where the robot has been rubbing people the wrong way and what that tells us about what it means to bring this type of technology and engagement in museums?

Oh, gosh.  Well, I don’t know so much about rubbing people the wrong way, but you certainly can read that from the looks.  I haven’t had extensive conversations about it yet, but the few times that we’ve taken it out into the public spaces, we always kind of query people that are around. So last week we had a local reporter for our paper interviewing us about the robot and talking to me about how we’re going to use it, how we have used it.  And so we just did a little trial run in the gallery.

My co-worker went out with the reporter, and I stayed in here and called from here.  And immediately it’s like a magnet.  People come right to it.  I can walk out in the hallway, nobody comes to me.  But when I go out on the robot, people come, and they want to know what it is, they want to know how it’s used. So for the most part you see that it’s a magnet.  But there’s some people that you can see kind of give that, you know, look of aversion. They’re not sure about this thing that’s rolling at them.  But we’ve tried querying and asking you know, what do you think about this? We explain what it is and ask, Would you use this?  Would you connect to a museum?  Would you talk to a guide? And for the most part, we get really positive feedback.

In your own words: what is a mobile telepresence robot?

What is a mobile telepresence robot? It’s a device that allows somebody to be present in some place where they can’t physically be present via some kind of computer technology.

Like Skype?

Very similar. But that person, the driver of the robot, as we call them, is in control.  And so not only are they not in a fixed spot, as they would be if they were calling into via Skype, when they’re calling in via robot, they can move around, and see different things, and be in control of which direction they’re looking.  So it’s a a huge advantage for them.

And which device did you purchase?

We purchased a Double robot from Double Robotics.

And so is everything you need in the box, or do you need to combine it with anything?

Everything you need in the box, except you do need to buy an iPad from Apple, because it works on the iPad.  Which was the appeal of the Double Robot to me, since Apple products are so widespread. You’re not too worried about the fact that iPad is going to crash and never work again.  So I liked the appeal that it was run off of an Apple operating system, or something more mainstream.

How many do you have, and how did you come to first acquire them?

We just have one.  I have been chatting here with the E-Learning folks on our campus just about all kinds of possible ideas.  We’d like to eventually get into more distance education, but not just in your standard ways.  I definitely would like to make sure that if we’re doing that, that there’s a bit of it that makes it really feel real for the people on the other end, too, and that they really feel connected. And so whether that’s sending out kits of objects, and then we’re talking about the objects with them while they have the real thing in hand – and this is just one more way where they could have some control over their experience, because they could actually decide what they look at in a gallery space. 

So we were chatting about robots, and how they were being used in museums, and how interesting they were, and then they got some on loan. And so brought it up here, and Sean Holland at E-Learning at UAF said, “You know, I’ve got one.  Do you want to try it out tomorrow?”  And I wanted to try it out in a real way, so I contacted a middle school class.  My husband’s a middle school science and math teacher.  And so I asked him if we could impose upon his students the next day. So the middle-schoolers called in, and we toured around the gallery and looked for products made out of animals so that it could fit with their curriculum.  And they did sketches and made connections between objects. 

And it was really, to me, quite an amazing experience to see just how spur of the moment activity still made them feel really connected to the museum and to the things they were seeing.  And they did some really amazingly detailed observations. So right after that, there was some grant money available for an instructional equipment grant from our provost.  And I applied to that and got the robot.  So that was just this spring, and we’ve been, since then, kind of experimenting with what’s going to be the most useful for classes, what’s going to be the most doable for us, staffing-wise, and what can we make work?

How would you describe the learning curve, and what kind of support’s been required once you have it up and running?

Gosh, I think it’s pretty straightforward.  I am not an Apple person, so I had that slight bit of iPad learning.  But other than that, you know, it’s an iPad on a stick.  And it was really easy.  You just push the button to say go, and then even when you tell drivers how to use it, it’s like a left and right arrow.  It’s not challenging, it’s not intimidating.  The students got it right away, and they were switching drivers every few minutes.  They just intuitively knew to use the arrows.  So it’s been really easy for us.  We had a little bit of issue with the audio in the beginning.  But I think we’ve resolved all of that.


So given your experience just these last few months using a roaming robot to enhance visitor engagement, has it made you think in any new ways about what the museum experience will look like 30 years from now?

Yeah, who knows?  It’s a big, bright world.  It’s hard to predict how fast all of this is moving.  You know, it’s still a novelty – I mean, I feel even funny about calling it a robot because robot often implies that there’s no human involved. And really, this is just a mechanism – I mean, it is Skype on wheels.  It’s a mechanism for people to get around and see things.  But what’s next?  I don’t know.

I do think that this really opens up a lot of doors for people that have mobility – you know, mobility or accessibility issues for a whole variety of reasons, and I think that that’s a great thing.

We still utilize it with people, and I don’t see that going away.  You know, not only a driver on one end, but someone to interact with at this end, as well.  So I think it’s continuing to make people connect with each other, whether they’re via screen or not.

It’s not connecting people to a device, but connecting people to people.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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