Over the past few months, a white, four-foot tall robot has roamed the Gunn halls, taking in the sights of students, teachers and administrators. Miles away, a special-needs student at Gunn sits at home, controlling the robot from his bedroom. Although this student is not physically able to attend school due to his special needs, VGo—a new remote-controlled robot—allows him to be active during class and participate in the school community.
The VGo robot is a telepresence device that allows someone to not be at school without sacrificing mobility or interaction.
The remote-controlled robot is equipped with two wheels, a wireless digital screen and a video camera. VGo users download an application onto their computer home. The software allows students to monitor the VGo’s surroundings, video conference with others and remotely control the robot’s movements through the keyboard. VGo essentially serves as a personal avatar for users.
In terms of education, VGo is focused on distant learning and is targeted towards home bound students. The Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) first took interest in the technology of telepresence because of the increasingly large number of students with physical disabilities who are unable to come to school. “PAUSD was interested in buying a telepresence robot because we wanted students with special needs to be as integrated in school as possible,” Gunn technician Brett Demetris said.
PAUSD started the pilot program for VGo at Gunn in August 2013. During the pilot, the robot was evaluated for sustainability, reliability and classroom acceptance through a series of test runs and student trials. “The first thing we did was drive the VGo around campus,” Assistive Technology Specialist Brian Gadus said. “Many teachers around Gunn and I drove it to see how the controls felt, pushing its limits to see what it could and couldn’t do as far as navigating the campus.”
Even in these first stages of testing, the robot experienced a number of difficulties. The major issue is that the robot relies on a wi-fi connection at all times. Because the robot is completely wireless, it loses all capabilities once it is unable to receive a connection. “If the robot is interacting with a person when the robot is not connected, it can be really troublesome for the person on the other end, because they’re not seeing anything and they can’t do anything about it,” Gadus said. According to the students who tested the robot, it was a cool technology, but it was weird to handle and control.
Technicians are also troubled by the possible reception of the robot in the classroom. Gadus believes that students physically in the classroom may be distracted by or will be unaccepting of the “different” student at school. “One of the biggest issues with the robot is the stigma that’s attached to it just because being the only one using something in a classroom just really stands out,” Gadus said. If the robot were to be implemented in the classroom, Gadus plans to have a pre-orientation lesson with students, discussing basic conduct with the VGo and how to treat it. Gadus hopes that students would be able to treat the VGo like any other student at Gunn. “You wouldn’t lift up your classmate or start touching his or her face, and it’s important that students remember that,” he said.
Gadus explains that the robot will be placed in one class and eventually, if VGo proves to be useful, be moved all over school to other classes and around campus to interact with other students. “As it is, we’re experiencing a lot of technical difficulties so we’re looking to conduct more student trials and get more feedback,” he said.
Still, the Gunn technicians are hopeful of the potential uses of VGo. “Imagine Gunn students being able to tour the Louvre from their classrooms,” Demetris said. “Thousands of VGos would be rolling around the Louvre, all student controlled. The impact of VGo on education is boundless.”