Connecting sick kids to the classroom

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AN INNOVATIVE ROBOT IS POPPING UP IN SCHOOLS AND HOSPITALS ACROSS North America to help keep sick children connected to the classroom.

PEBBLES – which stands for Providing Education By Bringing Learning Environments to Students – allows children who are ill or disabled to “virtually” attend school via a real-time, two-way audiovisual connection.

“When children with an illness or disability can’t attend school, the negative impact is more than academic,” says Jutta Treviranus, director of U of T’s Resource Centre for Academic Technology and one of PEBBLES’ co-creators. “Children are isolated from their peers and from the social experience of the classroom, which can often make recovery even more difficult.”

The PEBBLES system consists of two child-sized robots – one located in the hospital with the sick child and the other in the classroom – that transmit real-time video, audio and documents between classroom and child.

The classroom robot has a swivel head and a hand that the child controls remotely, so that he or she can look around the room and raise a hand to respond to the teacher. A video screen in the robot’s head projects the child’s image to his or her classmates. The hospital robot allows the child to see and interact with the teacher and classmates, while using a game pad to control the classroom robot.

PEBBLES has met with great success in the classroom. “It creates a presence so strong that teachers, classmates and the remote student all react as if the student is physically present in the classroom,” observes Treviranus.

PEBBLES is the result of a unique collaboration among experts whose interests range from new media and industrial engineering to occupational therapy and education.
Its three co-creators include Graham Smith, a self-defined “robotic artist” who specializes in video conferencing and virtual reality; Deborah Fels, a U of T engineering graduate and now director of Ryerson’s Centre for Learning Technologies; and Treviranus.

It all began in the early 1990s, with Smith’s desire to take teleconferencing to the next level. “Video conferencing was coming on the scene, but the real stumbling block was the lack of eye contact,” says Smith. “So I began trying to develop a technology that I call ‘telepresence’ – connecting people in ways that are more realistic and natural in order to give them a true presence.”

Smith’s first telepresence effort was a performance art piece, developed in 1993 while he was director of the Virtual Reality Artist Access Program within U of T’s McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology. The piece was called Senator Pobot, a little robot on wheels that Smith paraded in front of the White House, displaying live performances of various poets on the monitor in the robot’s head. The experiment wasn’t totally embraced – in fact, it was politely escorted off White House grounds – but it sparked some other ideas.

Treviranus and Fels – who are both focused on developing assistive technologies for people with disabilities – got wind of Smith’s project and immediately saw the potential for application in their field.

Ten years after the trio joined forces, PEBBLES is in its third incarnation – faster, easier to use and more attractive with each new version – and is being used in schools and hospitals across Canada and the U.S. The latest version was designed and manufactured in partnership with IBM.

Along the way, PEBBLES has undergone a series of pilot studies at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, and has received financial support for R&D from the federal government, particularly Industry Canada, and the U.S. government. PEBBLES units are also in use in one children’s hospital in each province.

In 1997, Smith founded Telbotics to help take PEBBLES and other videoconferencing technologies to market. Now located at the Exceler@tor – the U of T Innovations Foundation’s business incubator for IT start-up companies – Telbotics is gaining international recognition (see sidebar) and broke the $1 million mark in sales last year.


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MICHAEL MCHALE, PRESIDENT OF TELBOTICS, CAN HARDLY CONTAIN HIS enthusiasm – all for good reason. Having recently returned from an educational trade show in Holland, where PEBBLES was a runaway success, he has begun negotiations with the Dutch ministry of education regarding a possible nation-wide PEBBLES initiative.

“It was amazing,” McHale says of the overwhelming response to PEBBLES in the Netherlands. “We were on five TV shows, three radio shows and in 11 newspapers. The trade show’s organizers didn’t know what to make of it – they said, ‘Press don’t usually even come to this show.’”

The Dutch initiative is the latest success story in Telbotics’ short history. For the past two years, PEBBLES has been creeping across the United States, and interest is growing by leaps and bounds.

“The reaction has been, ‘This is amazing! PEBBLES should be in every hospital and school in the U.S.,’” says McHale.

The U.S. government’s enthusiasm has so far translated into CDN $1.7 million in funding and resulted in the placement of PEBBLES in a growing number of hospitals across the country – including Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital, Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, Miami Children’s Hospital, John Hopkins Children’s Hospital in Baltimore, and Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Rhode Island.

With further investments on the horizon, McHale estimates that at least 40 other U.S. hospitals will have PEBBLES units in the near future.

PEBBLES’ growing exposure has also caught the attention of potential partners in England, Germany and France. “It’s exciting but it’s also exhausting, because we’re still a small company,” says McHale.

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