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How robots bring the mob life to you

Special telepresence bots let people with physical disabilities explore cultural venues, such as Vegas' Mob Museum, just like everyone else.


Pamela Forth was determined to bring a little culture into her fiance's life.

That was no easy feat. Two decades earlier, a car accident left Roger Sprong a quadriplegic, with limited mobility. That made any trip too far beyond his Valparaiso, Indiana, home a challenge.

But Forth, a 61-year-old teacher from Palm Harbor, Florida, was determined, and learned about telepresence robots -- roughly 5-foot-tall machines with a large display and cameras, all on wheels -- that let people with physical disabilities remotely tour different venues. As it turned out, the Mob Museum in Las Vegas had just invested in such a robot, the Beam Pro from Suitable Technologies, and was looking for guinea pigs.

So in March, Forth and Sprong sat together on his bed, turned on his computer, downloaded the software and piloted the robot through the first floor of the museum, which features a long hallway adorned with pictures of all the known mob "made men" and their associates.

Sprong used his keyboard to maneuver the robot, which the museum affectionately calls "Moe-Bot."

"It was neat to go on a virtual date together," Forth said.

They had a blast and made plans to see the final two floors, but Sprong died in August before he was able to complete the tour. Even so, his feedback helped shape the experience for future guests, many of whom deal with physical ailments.

The 5-year-old Mob Museum is just one of 10 museums that have adopted the Beam Pro robot to give people a chance to view an exhibit virtually. Other museums include the San Diego Museum of Art and the de Young Museum in San Francisco. As Forth and Sprong found, that's a massive boon to people with physical disabilities, opening a pipeline into an array of cultural experiences.

This is what happens when a CNET editor (Roger Cheng, left) tries to get away from CES 2017 for a little bit.

This is what happens when a CNET editor tries to get away from CES 2017 for a little bit.

James Martin/CNET

"We certainly see Beam use growing in the museum and cultural arts markets," said Christa Cliver, director of education business development at Suitable Technologies, which at CES 2017 announced a faster, longer-lasting version of its robot.

While these kinds of robots seem like a novelty for now, you may soon see one at your local school, hospital or factory. President Barack Obama greeted the organizer of a disability organization via a Beam Pro in July 2015.

The market for telepresence robot devices and systems is expected to reach $7 billion by 2022, according to Wintergreen Research. That's a massive jump from its market size of $825 million in 2015.

But really, how is it?

Just four miles north of the hustle and bustle of the CES 2017 trade show at the Las Vegas Convention Center, I stood in the middle of the third floor of the Mob Museum. On one side, there was an actual wall from the St. Valentine's Day massacre in Chicago -- replete with bullet holes. On the other side, there's a row of wooden barrels, their bases burned in with images of notable figures from the Prohibition era.

It was at that moment I got a strange sense of deja vu.


My virtual experience in the museum was comparable to my real-life visit.

James Martin/CNET

That's because two weeks ago, I took the same tour with the Moe-Bot and a real-life guide who walked me through the various exhibits. They ranged from a look at well-known gangsters like Al Capone and Charles "Lucky" Luciano to a review of the early days of Las Vegas and how mob influence nurtured the city's growth.

The virtual tour, which costs $80 and is done only in the morning before other visitors arrive, gave me a near-complete experience of the museum. One of the wide-angle cameras broadcast what was in front of the robot, while a second camera was angled down so I could see what was in front of its "feet."


A look at what it's like to pilot the Beam robot.

Roger Cheng/CNET

Virtual lines would occasionally appear on the feed to show me where the robot was headed.

I used a keyboard to navigate, kind of how I'd do that in a PC shooter game. Every once in a while, my wife would peek over out of curiosity.

My guide, Cordia Gay, spoke directly to the camera, so it felt like she was talking to me. She even waved to my wife at one point. She was friendly and knowledgeable, and I got the sense I was getting more information than I would have with the usual self-guided tour, which cost $23.95.

There were some limitations. Video quality suffered when I zoomed in too much to read some of the history on the walls. Watching video screens was a little tough.

There were also a lot of interactive exhibits I couldn't access. It wasn't until I showed up in person that I was able to fire the replica Tommy gun.

But overall, the 90-minute tour was one of my most fulfilling museum experiences.


Some exhibits you just can't experience with a robot.

James Martin/CNET

Just getting started

Pamela Forth and Roger Sprong were among the first visitors to try the Moe-Bot.

Pamela Forth and Roger Sprong were among the first visitors to try the Moe-Bot.

Pamela Forth

The service was made available early last year and has done about 10 tours.

The museum was originally conceived by former mob attorney and mayor Oscar Goodman in 2002. It has since drawn interest around the world thanks to hit movies like "Goodfellas" and "The Godfather" and TV shows like "The Sopranos" and "Boardwalk Empire." The Beam robot offers a cheaper option than booking a ticket to Vegas.

"For people who can't see it, we're always looking for things to do that are outside the box," said Brenda Hengel, marketing manager for the Mob Museum.

Most of the people who have expressed interest have a disability, Gay said. They're pretty savvy about the software required to run the robot.

Indeed, Forth applauded the experience as a way to engage the mind of a person with physical disabilities.

"So many people treat quadriplegics like, since their body is broken, their mind should be too," Forth said. "It doesn't occur to them that it's the same person."

CES 2017: Get the hottest news from the big tech show, right here.

Tech Enabled: CNET chronicles tech's role in providing new kinds of accessibility. Check it out here.