Last August, Paulo Henrique Machado perused the exhibits and schmoozed with his peers at SIGGRAPH, an annual gathering of computer graphics artists and developers. The show was held at the Vancouver Convention Center in British Columbia, but Machado participated from the confines of a hospital bed in Sao Paolo, Brazil, where he has spent most of his 47 years. Such is the miracle of modern meetings technology.
As an infant, Machado was stricken with an especially virulent form of polio that left him almost completely paralyzed. Although he is prone in bed and tethered to a respirator 24/7, he can use his hands to work a computer. Over time, he taught himself computer animation and recently worked on an animated film series for children. When SIGGRAPH (short for Special Interest Group on Graphics and Interactive Techniques) conference chair Dave Shreiner learned about Machado, he vowed to find a way for the resourceful techie to attend the show.
"My view is that if you do anything related to computer graphics, you should be a part of the SIGGRAPH community," says Shreiner. "I thought that there had to be a way to get this guy to the conference."
Shreiner's solution was to have Machado attend via a telepresent robot -- essentially a screen that streams video and audio and is outfitted with a microphone and speakers. The unit is attached to wheels that can be remotely controlled via laptop from anywhere via an Internet connection. The video feed allows the participant to navigate through a space in real time, interact with other attendees and roam the floor independently.
After reaching out to several robotics companies over the course of several weeks, just nine days before the event, Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Double Robotics offered to supply a free model.
During the week before the show, Kristy Barkan, who took over from Shreiner as the project's manager, was in constant communication with Machado, updating him on conference schedules and agendas, discussing his interests and getting him up to speed on the SIGGRAPH community. The robot was shipped to the convention site, at which point Machado was able to perform test drives of the remote-controlled machine.
Despite the limited time to prepare, everything ran smoothly. "The robots do exactly what they're designed for -- it's pretty much plug and play," says Barkan. "Surprisingly, they're not overly complicated."
On the first day of SIGGRAPH, as some 14,045 attendees began arriving at the convention center, Machado rolled in alongside them. Soon he was gliding through the hallways via screen, introducing himself to others, taking part in sessions and meeting colleagues at a networking event for attendees from Brazil.
Two student volunteers were assigned to escort the robot around. ("It's light enough to be picked up, and it uses a removable iPad for the screen, so we didn't necessarily want to leave it unattended," notes Barkan.) They also helped with translation when required, as Machado speaks Portuguese.
Machado -- via an electronic avatar that he called R2-D2 -- became an instant celebrity on the show floor. "Everywhere the robot went, people would stop and talk to him," Barkan says. "We didn't see a single negative reaction."
"Do you know what this means to me?" Machado enthused during the show in a live Q&A. "It gives me the freedom that I physically can't have."
Next year, SIGGRAPH organizers plan to bring Machado back and are optimistic about making the experience even more valuable for him. "Now that Paulo has been able to 'attend' and learn a bit about the conference offerings, we can work with him more ahead of time to plan out what he would like to participate in," says Marc Barr, a professor of electronic media communication at Middle Tennessee State University and SIGGRAPH 2015's conference chair. He adds that he would love to see Machado participate as a presenter or leader of a session.
"The point is, I think we've made the first step in reaching a new audience," Barr says. "Not just for a conference like SIGGRAPH, but to be at a stage in the development of the technology that enables all of this to happen."