Driving a Robot, Alice Wong Meets the POTUS

By |2017-01-13T20:41:49+00:00July 31st, 2015|
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Alice Wong is the first person to meet the president using a telepresence robot.

Alice Wong is the first person to meet the president using a telepresence robot. Photo by Pete Souza.

Disability scholar and advocate Alice Wong made history by becoming the first person ever greeted by a president of the United States while driving a telepresence robot.

Wong, who has spinal muscular atrophy, received an invitation to the July 20 ADA reception hosted by President Obama, but regretfully turned it down since flying to Washington, D.C., from San Francisco would be too difficult. The story could have ended right here, but much to her surprise and delight, the White House Office of Public Engagement suggested a solution: She could borrow the Kennedy Center’s Beam Pro, a telepresence device. The Beam Pro is a driveable robot with a screen perched on top of it, and using this avatar, she could drive and communicate with those around her through an interactive video screen.

Wong was delighted by how easy the technology was to use. “Once you log on, you see the image of the room and below that are two smaller screens — a view of the floor so you don’t hit anything and a screen that showed my face,” she says.

Before the reception began Wong waited in the Blue Room. Suddenly the president came on the screen and she was introduced. “Thank you for your leadership,” he told Wong. She nervously replied, “Thank you for everything you’ve done for Americans with disabilities.” President Obama then asked Wong to demonstrate the technology, so she maneuvered the robot to the left and then to the right. The interaction was over quickly but Wong is thankful the robot made their meeting possible.

The East Room was packed to capacity as Wong made her way into the audience of fellow advocates. After the reception, Pete Souza, the president’s photographer, tweeted and Instagrammed a photo of Wong with the president — the first ever such meeting.

“I’m obsessed with getting a Beam Pro now and harboring a fantasy of attending next year’s San Diego Comic-Con via a telepresence robot!” says Wong. “I’d fit right in with R2-D2.”