WSJ Covers Robotic Telepresence in our Hall of Northwest Coast Indians

MS_151007_5348-editHere’s an AWESOME piece in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, by Zolan Kanno-Youngs: “Robo Tour Guides Are Ready to Roll at Museums.” It features our explorations of using telepresence robots in our Hall of Northwest Coast Indians (which I discussed here).

You can read it here or check it out below.

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, a Haida artist-in-residence at the American Museum of Natural History, talks to intern curator Sean Young through a robot in the museum’s hall of Northwest Coast Indians. Photo: Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Three women from Toronto were walking this month in the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians, the oldest hall in the American Museum of Natural History, when they spotted a very modern contraption.

With puzzled expressions, they stared at a screen mounted on two parallel poles on wheels. Their curiosity turned to surprise when they saw a face on the screen staring back.

“If you’d like, I can show you some items in the exhibit?” said Sean Young, whose face was displayed on the telepresence robot.

The women agreed and Mr. Young, an intern curator sitting at his computer at the Haida Gwaii Museum in Canada more than 3,000 miles away, directed the robot, a BeamPro SPS, to the right and moved it toward the first artifact in the New York City exhibit.

It was the fourth time since this summer that the American Museum of Natural History used telepresence robots to “beam” tour guides who are indigenous people from Haida Gwaii, a remote archipelago off British Columbia’s north coast.

Several museums across the city are evaluating using telepresence robots and are experimenting with different types of devices. The maker of the BeamPro SPS, California-based Suitable Technologies Inc., has offered museums a robot for an annual fee of $4,995.

Officials at the American Museum of Natural History on Manhattan’s Upper West Side said they have been looking for an innovative way to engage visitors to a section of the museum that opened in 1900. Robots certainly did the trick, they said.

“We’ve transitioned from the early 20th century right up to the 22nd,” said Peter M. Whiteley, curator of the museum’s division of anthropology.

The robots add a personal touch to the exhibit, Mr. Whiteley said.

On each of the four trial runs, the tour guides have been beaming into the museum from Haida Gwaii. Museum patrons didn’t need to rely on written descriptions next to the tribal artifacts. Instead, they could hear a personal story about them from one of the Haida people.

“I was super startled at first. I thought it might have been an exhibit for electronics and new technology, but then I realized he was really informed about the exhibit around here,” said Carmel Rahmanian, 24 years old, one of the women from Toronto who engaged with the robot last week.

Mr. Young said the robot has a zoom feature, which allows him to see the artifacts clearly on his computer screen. He can move the device forward, backward and side-to-side, all with strokes on his keyboard. The only restriction is that he can’t tilt the robot’s screen up, which makes describing totem poles difficult.

An initial concern among museum officials was that patrons would be too distracted by the robots and not pay attention to the exhibits, said Barry Joseph, associate director for digital learning in the museum’s education department.

“If you’re asking that person five minutes into the conversation how do the wheels work, then we’ve failed,” Mr. Joseph said.

But museum-goers listened attentively as Mr. Young described how copper shields were used as currency and masks were used exclusively for dancing in his culture. And sometimes, he said, he just chatted with people.

“They get really engaged and they all want to talk, but they’re unsure and then it’s on my behalf to try to engage them by casually introducing myself and asking them their name and where they’re from,” Mr. Young said.

While the museum is now using telepresence robots on a trial basis, Barry Joseph, the museum’s associate director for digital learning said, “We’re feeling very positive and exploring what it can mean for us moving forward.”

Telepresence robots, meanwhile, are finding their way to many other places. Businesses have bought the devices to help traveling employees stay connected to their offices. A professor at Cornell University used them to remotely give lectures to his students. People with disabilities have used the technology to take classes.

On Oct. 9, 51 fifth-graders at PS 39 in Brooklyn took a field trip to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., without leaving their school building.

Katherine Ulanowsky, a teacher at the school, remotely maneuvered the robot through the hallways of the West Coast museum as students waved to patrons who appeared on the smart board, an interactive whiteboard, at the front of the classroom.

When the tour ended, Ms. Ulanowsky used her keyboard to park the robot in the museum. One of her students, 9-year-old Kayden Merritt, then rose from his chair with excitement.

“I can’t believe we just got to do that,” he said.

About Barry

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