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Christa Cliver of Suitable Technologies shows off the Beam at the Seattle Art Museum. (Photo: Mónica Guzmán)
Christa Cliver of Suitable Technologies shows off the Beam at Seattle Art Museum. (Photo: Mónica Guzmán)

When you can’t leave your bed, you can’t explore the world.

But what if you could?

The Seattle Art Museum is testing technology that would allow people to tour its exhibits remotely by letting them control what look like tall, talking TVs on wheels.

They’re rolling telepresence devices — using cameras, microphones and a screen to give their remote drivers eyes, ears, a voice, a face and, most importantly, a body to maneuver in a distant space.

It’s moving video chat. And it could revolutionize accessibility.

But first, there’s work to do.

Meet the ‘Beam’

Henry Evans explores SAM via Beam from Palo Alto. (Photo: Christa Cliver)
Henry Evans explores SAM via Beam from Palo Alto. (Photo: Christa Cliver)

Palo Alto-based Suitable Technologies calls its telepresence devices Beams. I met one next to the Native American art at the Seattle Art Museum earlier this month. It was piloted by Henry Evans, an advocate for technology that helps the disabled live more independently.

The remote controls on the Beam take a little getting used to (more on that later), but Evans, who became quadriplegic and mute after a stroke-like attack in 2003, navigated the gallery like a pro from his bed in Palo Alto.

Evans was there to put a face to a partnership that Suitable Technologies has struck with seven museums around the country, including the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco, and SAM.

It’s a pretty good deal: Suitable Technologies does research in a new market (it sells much of its $17,000 technology to businesses for remote work), and the museums get to beta test technology that could bring new guests to their galleries — not just disabled patrons, but also researchers, guest curators and artists who can give guided exhibit tours from wherever they are.

It’s not technology for technology’s sake, SAM digital media manager Chirag Thakkar said, but one that “serves the art and our audiences.”

To be clear, the Beams are not available for public use at the museums just yet. Museum testers all insist — and the company agrees — that the technology needs some upgrades before it lands in the art world, particularly with its cameras.

Experiencing the technology

To give me a sense of how Beams work, Christa Cliver of Suitable Technologies sat me at a laptop and let me control Beams at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco, and an artist installation at Microsoft’s Studio 99 (it was quite the whirlwind tour).

A wide-angle camera on the Beam lets remote pilots see what’s in front of them. A camera aimed at the floor helps with navigation.

A zoom feature lets pilots toggle between a wide view and a close-up. But at 3x, the zoomed camera doesn’t give you a good look at art that should be experienced close-up. When Microsoft’s Asta Roseway held up a fascinating bio-fabric to my “face” on the Beam at Microsoft Research, I could barely make out its texture. The labels next to art pieces were also inaccessible. Zoomed in all the way, I could barely make out the words.

These are known issues, and Cliver is all too familiar. A 10x zoom is in the works, Cliver said, but she couldn’t say when it would be ready.

Another item on SAM’s wish list: geofencing. Beams automatically slow down when they get too close to objects, but for one of them to move around a gallery without a security escort — this is art, after all — the technology will need its own map of where it can and can’t go.

Piloting a Beam in San Francisco from SAM. (Photo: Christa Cliver)
Piloting a Beam at the Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco from SAM. (Photo: Christa Cliver)

As for maneuvering the Beam, that’s easy. Arrow taps move you forward and backward and let you turn. A mouse drag in zoom mode lets you pan around the object you’re facing. Views of your view, the floor, and your face as seen on the Beam’s screen keep you grounded.

The weirdest thing about driving the Beams was being here, but having a body there. I erred on the side of abundant caution, moving forward in short bursts so I didn’t hit anyone. It was a little embarrassing.

Evans, who has a Beam in his home, could let loose. He rushed the Beam right at me, huge smile on his face, just to freak me out.

“My purpose in life is to make sure the latest technologies are available to the disabled,” he told me from the Beam. His wife, Jane, translated his words, which he spelled out for her by looking at letters on a board.

Evans imagines a day when telepresence technology is available to bedridden patients in hospitals, letting them escape the monotony of their rooms and be visited by distant friends and family.

“I would like telepresence to become the ADA [American with Disabilities Act] standard for accessibility.”

Who wouldn’t? Telepresence devices have a ways to go before they can give disabled people the kind freedom they dream of.

But the Beam, at least, feels like the first generation of something that might one day be as obvious as a wheelchair and as ubiquitous as a disabled parking spot.

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