It was an ad seen by millions watching the Super Bowl. A sick student looking into the computer screen, while his face is projected on a monitor of a white robot — equipped with a camera — wheeling around the school hallways. It was an advertisement for Verizon, and many watching might have assumed that it represented the fanciful idea of what was to come. Few suspected that what they were watching represented the reality of at least one student in West Seneca, New York.
Devon Carrow, a second-grader, suffers from a range of allergies that make his attendance in school impossible. Instead, from home he steers around a 4-foot robot which carries his picture on its screen. Apart from making Devon's education possible, what is most impressive is how easily his fellow students have adjusted to these unusual circumstances.
That Devon isn't actually there is barely acknowledged. While making get-well cards for him during a hospital stay last year, his classmates all drew him as a boy, not a bot.
"In the classroom, the kids are like, âDevon, come over, we're doing Legos. Show us your Legos,'" says teacher Dawn Voelker.
"I wondered how the little kids would take to him, thinking they'd be amazed," adds Principal Kathleen Brachmann. "But I think kids are so tech-savvy now that they accept it more than we do."
Devon is enjoying the benefits of years of research and development that have culminated in the creation of VGo, a white chess-pawn-shaped robot that Verizon featured because it presents the wide range of possibilities of its cellular network. The product of VGo Communications, it was launched in 2011 and has already been making a difference in the lives of children not just in New York, but in New Jersey, Wisconsin, Iowa and Texas.
However, schools aren't the only place the VGos might find a home. Anywhere, where the presence of an individual would make a real difference but would be otherwise impossible, could be a good setting for the robot to operate. According to the Associated Press, there has been a lot of interest for medical and business purposes as well.
Meanwhile, for Devon, it is making things possible that weren't before.
"It's really fun having him in the class," said Caitlyn Bedient, a pixied brunette who sits a few desks away. "He has toys at home and we can show him the creations we make."
Classmate Daisy Cook said it was a bit awkward at first when the technology would glitch, and it didn't quite seem fair that Devon got to stay home and go to school.
"But now it's kind of cool," she said, her blue eyes widening, "because we can communicate together. It's like he was never on the VGo."