Robots Give Virtual Tours of the de Young Museum

One of the De Young Museum robots. Photo: video still, via CBS News.

A trip to San Francisco’s de Young Museum just got a whole lot easier, thanks to a new pair of robots that offer virtual tours of the museum’s galleries to the paralyzed, home-bound, and others unable to physically visit the institution, reports CBS News.

From anywhere with wireless internet, would-be museum visitors can guide the robots through the de Young. A video screen even allows them to talk face-to-face with other museum-goers, fully sharing the experience.

The robots are the brainchild of Henry Evans, a former Silicon Valley executive who became almost completely paralyzed after suffering a stroke in 2002. Today, he can only move his head and a single finger. Evans communicates with a voice activator that he controls with his eyes, but it is robots that have allowed Evans to remain engaged in the world, flying a drone through his house and over the garden in his backyard, and even delivering a TED talk across the country on the East Coast on robotics activism through a similar robot.

“The fact that a quadriplegic can now wander through a museum on the other side of the planet or just across town while comfortably lying in bed at home is pretty remarkable,” Evans told CBS. “If you spend most of your time in bed you cannot readily experience these things, and you don’t take them for granted.”

The museum was initially concerned that the robots could be distracting to visitors, but the initial response has been positive—even if the machines are sometimes mistaken for performance art! In addition to the home-bound, the museum hopes the robots will also help those who live far away or cannot afford to visit in person.

Last year, London’s Tate Britain offered nighttime robot tours for internet users, but only for five days. Though the de Young may be breaking new ground with its robot program, it is not the only museum improving accessibility for the handicapped. In New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art offer special tours for visitors who are blind or partially sighted. The Guggenheim also offers tours for the disabled, including a Mind’s Eye program geared toward the blind, and has trained gallery guides to provide verbal descriptions for those with impaired vision.

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