Museum-lover Henry Evans has been fortunate. Over the past year, he has been able to take one-on-one guided tours of the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, the de Young Museum in San Francisco, and the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, among others. Such museum hopping is not necessarily unusual, of course, but what makes Evans’ experience unique is that he was able to stroll through the collections of these institutions while lying supine in his Los Altos Hills home in California.
Evans is a mute quadriplegic. He suffered a stroke in 2002 that left him with minimal powers of movement except for his head, a saving grace that allows him to access the Internet, use a voice synthesizer, and correspond by email via head motions and a special interface. It also allows him to pilot a number of telepresence robots: remotely controlled, mechanical avatars like the Beam, which Evans has used for many of his museum tours. Originally designed by Palo Alto–based manufacturer Suitable Technologies as an alternative to travel for business executives, the Beam is a sleek white machine, with two slender supports rising from a low, wheeled base to hold up a tablet-size screen that displays the user’s face. It’s the robot Evans uses to address a Washington, D.C., crowd in a popular TEDx video from 2013.
In the years since his stroke, he has made it his mission to find ways to extend his reach into the world, and when he began inquiring about using telepresence robots in museums earlier this year, he found willing partners. The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, and the de Young Museum in San Francisco are actively considering keeping small fleets of Beams on site for telepresence programs that could be open to the public later this year.