Telepresence Robot takes Brookfield student to school

Beam me to school, Scotty

James Humphreys, a junior at Brookfield High School, attends his English class remotely through a Double 2 Telepresence Robot. The device was donated through Assistive Technology of Ohio at The Ohio State University School of Engineering. (Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple)

BROOKFIELD — James Humphreys puts a lot of drive into his telecommute to classes.

From his wheelchair at home, the Brookfield High School junior controls a robot that wheels down school hallways, whirrs into classrooms and settles him at his virtual desk a view of the board, teacher and his work for the day.

“It totally changed my attitude on life in general,” Humphreys said. Using the Double 2 Telepresence Robot from Double Robotics allows him to get back to school and in the community — even if remotely — to see people again.

“It’s basically an iPad with wheels,” Humphreys said.

The robot looks like an electronic tablet strung from a metal broomstick that telescopes up from a wheel base that resembles a large coffee on its side with rollers on each end. It includes a power drive and stability control to keep it from flopping over.

They retail for about $2,800.

Humphreys was diagnosed with spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia, an inherited bone growth disorder that results in dwarfism, skeletal abnormalities and problems with vision and hearing. Among the obstacles Humphreys contends is the need for specialized assistance in the restroom.

“Physically, going to school was not an option,” he said.

Brookfield Principal Adam Lewis said every state has an assistive technology department. In Ohio, it’s run through The Ohio State University School of Engineering.

Brookfield contacted Assistive Technology of Ohio to find out what might be able to help in this situation. Faster than they expected, OSU donated a Telepresence Robot for Humphreys.

“Jimmy is the first high school student in the state of Ohio to use this technology,” Lewis said. It’s the 16th such unit to be used in Ohio.

“Our kids have been really respectful of the technology. They like having Jimmy back in school,” Lewis said.

“It was kind of weird the first day,” classmate Victoria Merchant, a junior in his English 11 class, said. “It’s interesting. All you see are kids in class and then you see him.

“It was different when he wasn’t here,” Merchant said.

“It was bizarre at first. Where do I look?” Jessica Gardner, English 11, teacher, said, “I had never interacted with a student virtually before. Now it’s second nature. Jimmy is a student in class now.

“It seems to be working. He likes it a lot,” Gardner said.

Humphreys drives the robot from class to class, usually being dismissed a few minutes earlier for clearer hallway navigation. Or sometimes, Lewis will pick it up by the mounting stuck and carry it to wherever Humphreys needs to be when he logs on.

“It’s an amazing device,” Humphreys said. “I can’t be anymore thankful for the company that donated it.”

Humphreys said that his mom doesn’t have a wheelchair van, so mostly he is confined to home, he said. He barely was able to leave his room, he said. Using the robot has allowed him to get out — even if remotely — to see people again.

The Double 2 is designed to be operated by an app on a smart phone, iPad or computer so that a student can “beam” into his or her classroom from anywhere in the country.

Humphreys did one better: “He rigged it up. He’s got an Xbox controller,” Lewis said. Humphreys said he finds the Xbox panel easier to work.

Lewis said, “We have a charging bay in the conference room.”

“The other day, I got it on the charging dock by myself,” Humphreys said. That’s no small feat and includes driving the robot backward.

There are three cameras, the main one at the top of the screen for an overall view, one at the bottom of the screen that’s like a phone camera and can take screenshots, and another camera underneath that looks straight down on the wheels and floor.

“It’s like a Facetime call, almost,” Humphreys said.

His assignments are transmitted through email or Google Docs.

“The only thing I have to come to school for is Ohio state tests because you have to be in a secure room,” he said.

Humphreys, who has talked about wanting to become a 911 dispatcher, said he hopes the robots catch on to help a wider range of people. For example, a cancer patient could undergo chemotherapy treatments and still be in school or wherever they need to be, he said.

Assistive Technology of Ohio states, “Through this program, we are able to help students keep up to date with their schoolwork while remaining in contact with their teachers, friends and fellow students.”

The lease rate for students and schools is $85 a month, according to the university.