We are firm believers in the idea that everyone should be able to visit museums to experience art firsthand. There are awesome programs that allow those who can't afford admission prices the opportunity to enter for free, but what about the people who can't enter because of physical limitations?
After suffering from a stroke in 2002 that left him mute and almost completely paralyzed, Henry Evans was given the ability to virtually leave his home thanks to a "remotely controlled, mechanical avatar" called the Beam, a robot designed by a team at Suitable Technologies. Evans gave a TED Talk using the robot last year, and now he is using the technology in collaboration with the Computer History Museum and the de Young Museum to help people who are in similar situations. "In five years, I would like to see museums all around the world at least experimenting with this technology, and in 10 years for it to be ubiquitous," Evans wrote in an email to Slate, adding that if his dream becomes a reality, it would be the "next great ‘democratization of culture.’"
Robots were recently used to explore the Tate at night as a part of an IK Prize funded art project, but this is taking the idea to a whole new level. Thinking beyond the art world, the idea of telepresence robots becoming virtual windows to the world for the disabled could indeed change the lives of many. Bomb squads and other military units have used robots for years to get into places deemed unsafe for humans, so having them run errands or see a film shouldn't be that far off. According to Slate, there may have to be some changes made to the U.S. Department of Justice's regulations to include robots as "auxiliary aids," though Senior Policy Analyst with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund Marilyn Golden says there is another way: "It could be that the Department of Justice doesn’t update its regulations, but the technology becomes more accessible and comes into wider use and is interpreted to be required.”
Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts VSA and Accessibility Director Betty Siegel is weary of what an "overemphasis" on robots could mean for existing programs designed to help disabled visitors: "To me, this technology is not a substitute for [first-hand] experience—it is a tool to be deployed when it is effective."
What are your thoughts about telepresence robots, and what they could mean for museums and for disabled patrons? Check out the full article over on Slate, and share your thoughts below.