Meet your prom date, a telepresence robot

Two Kansas high school students who had to be out of state at prom time get to dance with their friends, from thousands of miles away, thanks to technology.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
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Leslie Katz
3 min read

Jaden Anderson snaps a prom selfie with Olivia Ledezma, who attended via telepresence robot. Mispagel Photography

On a Saturday night earlier this month, Olivia Ledezma got all dressed up for her high school prom. So did her telepresence robot, which donned a pink feather boa and tiara for the occasion.

The robot, named Clark, had cause for festive attire. After all, it was making it possible for Ledezma, a Kansas sophomore, to "attend" the dance from thousands of miles away in California. The student council president used an app to control the wheeled robot remotely, with the iPad atop its adjustable pole neck letting her virtually interact, dance, and even play cards with classmates.

Dylan Wenk, a freshman, also attended via a telepresence robot, his named Lewis and wearing a bow tie. Like Ledezma, he's a Kansas resident, but was out of state at prom time, in Michigan.

"I was able to feel like I was actually there," Wenk told Crave. "I liked that it was easy to drive and didn't have too much lag. I didn't like the robot being picked up and knocked around."

Lawrence Public Schools provided the robots and helped Ledezma and Wenk learn how to navigate them. They both logged in to the robots through the Double Robotics website, then connected to a Google Hangout Feed so other students could see what the robots were seeing.

The students attend Lawrence Virtual High School, which offers a different kind of home schooling. The 1,500 students who attend the overall Lawrence Virtual School are registered as students in the Lawrence, Kansas, public school district and follow lessons and materials -- and take tests -- that meet state standards. But they work at home with an adult teacher.

This isn't the first time telepresence robots have allowed kids to attend school, or school events, remotely. A couple of years back, a school district in Arkansas purchased a $5,000 VGo telepresence robot so a student on a ventilator due to a rare muscle disorder could sit in on class.

The Lawrence Virtual High School prom, open to 9th to 12th graders and their families, is one of a number school-sponsored events during the year where students can interact in person. It may, however, be the only one that involves dancing robots.

Olivia Ledezma and her telepresence robot Clark, enjoy time in the prom photo booth. Mispagel Photography

"The robots even picked up some dance moves," Will Averill, the registrar at the school (and the prom DJ), told Crave. "They haven't quite mastered Gangham Style, but they did a pretty decent Macarena (and yes, the Macarena is still popular -- even with robots)."

Given that students at the school spend at least 25 percent of their time on a computer, according to the school's FAQ, it's no surprise computers figured prominently into the prom too. And not just for the telecommuting prom-goers.

"In addition to the robots, we connected up a private server for the school and were able to offer a Minecraft tournament for students more interested in gaming than dancing," Averill said. "We had 10 computers linked -- and most were in use during throughout the evening. We're not sure if anyone built the Wakarusa Valley school into their Minecraft world, though."

(Via Lawrence Journal-World)