Skype, Beam, ITKAN, and the Power of Connectivity

 |   Pat Maher and Adam J. Hecktman

Meet Pat Maher. Pat is the Director of Civic Engagement for the technology firm SPR in Chicago. He uses a wheelchair as the result of a spinal cord injury in college. He is a strong advocate for people with disabilities, a mentor, and the co-founder of the IT Knowledge and Abilities Network (ITKAN). ITKAN is a professional development group for people managing a disability.

Meet Henry Evans. Henry is in his 40’s and lives in California. Henry, a man with a wife and four kids,had been left with near complete paralysis years before as the result of a massive stroke. Before his stroke in 2002, Henry had been a CFO in Silicon Valley. He founded Robots for Humanity as a driver for advancing technology to support improved quality of life for people with severe disabilities and others who are unable to travel or engage the world for any reason. Henry now has only modest control over moving his head and a finger of one hand.

Meet Bob Bauer. Bob is the Senior VP of Commercialization for a company called Suitable Technologies. They develop robotic technologies that allow people to travel instantly, going beyond traditional video conferencing. Their technology, the beam®, removes the constraints of a screen by coupling high-end video and audio with the freedom of robotic mobility.

And finally, meet Steve Luker. Steve has cerebral palsy, is non-verbal, and uses a power wheelchair for his mobility. A talented Windows developer, Steve enjoys monthly meetings with his friends at ITKAN. But this month, he was enjoying a well-deserved vacation on the beaches of South Carolina.

And last week, thanks to the power of modern collaboration software, we were all together to learn how Henry leverages Bob’s technology, to the amazement of Steve, Pat, myself, and a full room of ITKAN members. What was amazing about the evening is that we were participating from across the country. Allow us to explain.

A Serendipitous Sunday

On a Sunday morning this March, Pat Maher watched a CBS Sunday Morning news story featuring the Beam® Robot from Suitable Technologies of Palo Alto, CA. The beam was acting as a guide around the de Young Museum in San Francisco for Henry Evans. Intrigued by the technology, he reached out to the museum to sign up himself for a virtual tour. He also reached out to Adam Hecktman and a couple of ITKAN members to gauge interest on Skyping in Henry and someone from the inventor of the beam to one of our monthly meetings.

Through Rebecca Bradley, Manager of Access Programs for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (who uses the beam to conduct tours for remote patrons), Pat was able to reach both Henry Evans and Bob Bauer from Suitable Technologies.   Clearly, this was a great story for ITKAN.   The question became: how do you best showcase the beam, itself a collaborative technology, to an audience with a variety of capabilities and challenges, across the country? Like millions of others, we turned to Skype.

Skype brings the beam and Robots for Humanity discussion to ITKAN

We had a full house at our usual meeting place, the Microsoft Technology Center Chicago (MTC). In fact, several of us noted that members and new members were milling about the common areas of the MTC early! Clearly we’d struck a chord with our topic.

We fired up the consumer version of Skype, and leveraged just about every feature. We used the video capabilities to go through a round of introductions. We used video sharing to show several background videos including Henry’s TED Talk, the CBS Sunday Morning beam and de Young Museum piece, and a great presentation of Henry’s canvassing how he uses everything from the beam to drone technology to virtually travel the world. Steve Luker had already joined us from South Carolina where he was taking in the presentation in his typical cerebral manner, and communicating his questions and comments using Skype’s IM feature.

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ITKAN members watch a TED Talk from the MTC featuring Henry Evans of Robots for Humanity “Beaming” into the conference from his home in Palo Alto, CA before meeting Henry via Skype at their July meeting.

The members were well-primed when Henry’s beaming – pardon the cheap pun – face appeared on the oversized monitor in the room. We first gave him a round of applause for his great work in bringing this discussion of leading-edge robotic technology to support a fuller quality of life among PWD to the forefront. He and his wife Jane were clearly touched and appreciative for the opportunity to engage with ITKAN members. We projected a group of questions on the monitor that we had emailed Henry in advance, reading them out loud and playing back Henry’s responses which he had provided in the form of a .wav audio file. With Skype, we were able to have a rich, enlightening, and inspiring discussion.

A Unique Q&A Session

As is typical of the ITKAN crowd, there were many insightful questions of Henry. One of our newest members who noted that she has a diagnosis on the autism spectrum asked him why voice out technology on PCs hadn’t yet caught up with the more natural voices exhibited in things like GPS and smartphones. She explained that she had challenges understanding the robotic sounding voices. Henry noted that he was always looking to identify a more natural manner by which to express himself, agreeing with her interest in a more human voice.

Another long-time member asked whether the robotic technology that Henry exhibited on one of the videos – going so far as to shave a colleague remotely – was available for others with severe disabilities or for long-term care facilities to provide some sense of independence that is so important for self-esteem. Henry noted that the technology was in the research phase, and he had accessed it in coordination with one of the research partners. Another question came from a member who is a neurologist. He wanted to know whether Henry was familiar with any work in brain-machine interface systems to control functions, movements and interfacing with the living environment. They then had a lively discussion on some of the academic centers where this complex research is being conducted, but concluded by agreeing that all of the research to date in this area requires invasive brain surgery…and Henry likes his head just as it is! That prompted general laughter from the group.

Around the Globe…without the Airfare!

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ITKAN members in the MTC Executive Conference Room converse with Bob Bauer of Suitable Technologies and Henry Evans of Robots for Humanity in Palo Alto, CA at their July meeting. ITKAN member Steve Luker is also Skyped in for the meeting from the east coast.

While Henry and Jane watched via Skype, we brought Bob Bauer into the discussion. As SVP for Commercialization at Suitable Technologies, the inventor of the beam robot, he is clearly passionate about the potential of robotics to augment quality of life for millions around the globe. Proving to be a good showman, Bob left the best for last. Sitting in Suitable’s offices in Palo Alto, he operated 4 beam robots remotely from their offices in Kansas City, Boston, Lyons (France) and China, peppering his piloting of the beams with explanations of the technology, their sensors, and the potential to impact many facets of life. Via Skype desktop sharing, we were able to tour the globe through the eyes of a robot.

By the time the clock struck 7pm in Chicago we were all immersed in the wonders of robotic technology, drones, collaborative video technology and the human spirit that glowed so brightly in Henry Evans, founder of Robots for Humanity. This incredibly bright former Silicon Valley CFO, who might well have sunk into despair following the loss of nearly all physical function after his stroke in 2002, has chosen rather to optimize his most powerful tool – his mind – for the benefit of millions. Thanks Henry, Jane and Bob!

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