Robots, research & reimagining on-campus presence

On college campuses worldwide, telepresence is having its a meta moment, both as an accessibility and collaboration tool and as the subject of its most avid users’ compelling R&D.

Strolling down the hallways of the Assistive Robotics Department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), you may bump into PhD candidate Kavita Krishnaswamy, despite the fact that she’s nearly fully paralyzed from the neck down. Kavita is currently working collaboratively with fellow academic leaders to research the development of robotic systems with a focus on accessible user interfaces to provide assistance and increase independence for people like herself.

Across the pond is Dr. Jennifer Rode, a senior lecturer in Digital Technologies in Education at the University College London (UCL), who like Kavita is challenged by a physical disability. Still, you may well find her in a classroom debating the benefits of being a “cyborg,” or at the very least, interacting with students in her role as head of the Rainbow Lab, which examines how values become incorporated into technology design.

Head to North America, and you’ll meet Dr. Carman Neustaedter, an associate professor in the School of Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. Dr. Neustaedter may be on sabbatical or vacation, but there’s a good chance you’ll spot him interacting with student research groups at the Connections Lab (cLab).

What do these forward-thinking academic thought leaders have in common? Beyond a passion for researching how the intersection of technology and accessibility can further the education of a great number of people while facilitating progress within the institutions they represent, their on-campus, “in person” presence is often via a telepresence robot.

Here’s how telepresence is making it possible for anyone to be “on campus” at anytime from anywhere regardless of physical limitations to connect, learn, and teach together.

Upping the accessibility ante
Thanks to University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC)’s acceptance of telepresence technology, doctoral candidate Kavita Krishnaswamy is able to participate as both a distance-learning student and as a researcher. She has rare genetic disorder, Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), which has robbed her of most physical movement (save a few working muscles in her right hand) and requires continuous care, so Kavita can only leaves her home on rare occasions.

Using a Beam telepresence robot, Kavita is able to pursue her PhD in assistive robotics from UMBC and conduct research. In her time in grad school at UMBC, she has drawn on her skills in artificial intelligence, software design and other forms of technological communication to invent 10 simulated versions of more accessible devices. Kavita even delivered her dissertation in person, via telepresence.

Kavita has also found that her ability to be more social and interact with others is a positive for her personal health as well. This makes sense as the University of California, Irvine recently conducted a study finding that telepresence robots help homebound students, particularly those who are chronically ill, maintain a sense of normalcy by allowing them to attend classes “in person.”

“Cyborgs” on campus
The rise of the machines is inevitably a fascinating subject in academia. For example, UC Santa Cruz’s Professor Emerita Dr. Donna J. Haraway has spent decades researching and writing on our “cyborg” nature, and the idea that there’s no clear delineation between computers and animals, people and technology.

Her groundbreaking work has had a significant impact on academic thought leaders at collegiate institutions worldwide, including Dr. Jennifer Rode, who researches human-computer interaction and ubiquitous computing at the University of London (UCL) and who routinely uses telepresence technology, as an autoimmune disease often leaves her housebound.
A robotic device can provide a more vigorous persona or “cyborg self,” as Dr. Rode describes it. By having a physical embodiment on campus, she argues others may view her in a radically different light, reframing her disability as an asset rather than a liability.

Considering that Futurism predicts that by 2020 there will be four devices per human on average, there’s tremendous benefit to embracing “cyborgs” on campus and in our daily lives as a critical value add and field of academic study.
Dr. Rode’s work, like Kavita’s, looks at how to remove the struggle with visibility and presence for people with disabilities, particularly in the education field, and she often plays her own research subject on issues of mobility and accessibility. She researches everything from the “technology” of a simple cane to the use of a telepresence robot to “transport” her to work, depending on the circumstance.

The rise of remote research
Dr. Rode first came across telepresence technology in 2014 at a ubiquitous computing conference (UBICOM) in Seattle where her colleague, Dr. Carman Neustaedter from Simon Fraser University had brought along several telepresence robots for remotely attending students and researchers.

Aside from using robots to attend academic conferences, Simon Frasers’ Interactive Arts and Technology Connections Lab (cLab) routinely uses a variety of remote communications technology to conduct research with distance learners in their work. From using drones to wearables to explore complex issues like privacy and embodiment, Dr. Neustaedter’s researchers utilize collaborative technology to study how other technological applications and implementations can mitigate perceived limitations of proximity to pursue their own academic endeavors together while finding solutions to connect others, in educational settings and otherwise.

cLab research aside, Dr. Neustaedter has personally taken to using telepresence to provide continuity on campus – even when he’s on a year-long sabbatical. Considering that much of the academic research cLab students conducts is on “domestic computing,” telepresence and other remote technology provides a critical link so that even busy professors and students can maintain a vibrant personal life, too.

Whether it’s allowing staff to teach and/or conduct distance research, bringing students to class, or facilitating the opportunity to explore how technology can further higher education for everyone regardless of physical limitations, the benefits of telepresence on campuses worldwide are exponential. With the right collaborative approach, everyone can be “on-campus” to learn and grow together.

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