ST. LOUIS • A robot rolled into the galleries of the St. Louis Art Museum on Thursday.
It was tall, as tall as a man. It had a sturdy base and a thin monitor; something of an iPad on a pole with wheels. It came up the elevator, exited on the third floor, and drove past the Norman Rockwell, the Thomas Hart Benton and all those George Caleb Binghams.
Henry Evans, a mute quadriplegic, had arranged a personal tour, courtesy of a very new device, which he controlled from his bed in Los Altos Hills, Calif.
Evans, 53, was reared in Des Peres, graduated from De Smet Jesuit High School and Notre Dame, and got his MBA at Stanford, in Palo Alto, Calif. He married his high school sweetheart, Jane, reared four children, and became the chief financial officer of a small startup in Silicon Valley.
Then, 12 years ago, while driving his children to school, he suffered a sort of stroke that left him paralyzed from the neck down and unable to speak.
For the first few years, he was despondent, family said.
Then he got into robots.
He taught himself to control a computer with the tiniest of head movements. To communicate, letter-by-letter. And he began working with engineering professors and Silicon Valley companies to develop useful robotics for the disabled. He has since used robots to shave, open the fridge, hand out Halloween candy and do household chores.
“I saw new and previously unthinkable possibilities to live and contribute, both for myself and others in my circumstance,” he said, by computer, during a 2013 TED-talk presentation in Washington.
And now he’s using robots to visit the world.
He flies a drone out of his hillside yard to “walk” vineyards, gardens and the surrounding countryside.
And he is one of a few now visiting museums across the country by way of this rolling robot, called a Beam.
“Robots, like the one you’re seeing, really changed his life, and for the better,” said Georgia Tech biomedical engineering professor Charlie Kemp, who has worked with Evans researching technology and disabilities. “Robots are becoming more widely available, more affordable, more capable. And that’s a trend that’s going to continue. I love what Henry’s doing with robots.”
Erin Rapacki, director of marketing at Suitable Technologies, which makes the Beam, said there are already several of these in museums across the country, from the de Young Museum in San Francisco to the Detroit Institute of Arts to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington.
Suitable generally sells the devices, which cost $16,950 each, to companies that use them for remote meetings and other such functions. But the museum pilot program, in which the robots are loaned, is one of the company’s most exciting projects, she said. Nearly anyone can use the machines; they’re driven from a PC, by a mouse or arrow keys, like a video game.
Evans has helped. “He himself is pioneering what he wants as a person with a disability,” Rapacki said.
Lindsey Bean-Kampwerth, director of the Assistive Technology Center at Paraquad in St. Louis, warned that occupational therapists such as herself still want patients to interact with their communities, smell fresh air and soak in some sunshine.
“But for someone who can’t get up and get a drink, or change the channel, having the ability to control something is a pretty big deal,” she said.
Thursday afternoon, Evans drove the Beam through the St. Louis Art Museum galleries. Melissa Wolfe, curator of American art, conversed with him and his wife through the screen. Evans’ mother, father, sister, daughter — a student at Washington University — and several nieces and nephews, visited the museum in person to say hi.
A videographer joined. Evans is giving a TEDx talk next Saturday at the Sheldon Concert Hall on Washington Boulevard in Grand Center. Evans will edit the footage at home, and use it in his presentation.
“It’s the idea that Henry can go anyplace in the world, even though he’s bedridden, said Steve Sommers, curator for the local series of high-tech talks.
Amanda Thompson Rundahl, the museum’s director of learning and engagement, said she got an email two weeks ago asking if she could host the robot. She said she jumped at the opportunity, both to help Evans, and to see for herself what it’s like. Some asked her if it was like Skyping. “No,” she said. “He’s directing his own experience.”
And he did. The machine wasn’t perfect. Sometimes it stalled. At one point the battery seemed to run low.
But more often than not, art museum staff could peer around the machine, and see Henry Evans, his wife by his side, with a gleeful smile stretching across his face.
“That’s what gives me goosebumps,” Thompson Rundahl said, of Evans’ independence. “That’s really cool.”