Meet the robot that helps you learn from afar
An innovative concept means an interactive education for students who can't make it to lectures
Cambridge students have no excuse to miss a lecture ever again – thanks to the AV1.
The robot avatar is produced by Norwegian start-up business NoIsolation and is conventionally used to combat loneliness. However clinical genomics specialist Gemma Chandratillake decided the technology could adapted for breastfeeding mothers who couldn’t get to their lectures because they were living in other cities.
“The students were very determined to make it work,” said Dr Chandratillake. “They wanted to complete their masters while on maternity leave, before they went back to work.
“You don’t generally do things like this on this course, it’s very immersive, but they were able to take part in class.”
The initiative, which was reported on Channel 4 News recently, came about because “there are lots of families using these avatars for schooling purposes, so it clicked in my mind”.
The AV1 houses a camera, microphone, and is wi-fi and 4G-enabled. You control it via app – you swipe the screen on the app to move the robot (tilt head up and down, turn robot sideways). The AV1 streams the audio-visual content from its location to your phone. To ask a question you put your hand up in front of the app, which makes the robot’s head flash, indicating to the teacher that you want to speak. There are no controls on the robot side except a tiny button to reboot the robot – otherwise you just plug it in when it needs charging.
An AV1 costs about £2,000, but you can hire one for £280 a month. It offers more facilities than Skype, and “if they want to breastfeed they’ve got that anonymity”.
“We rented them from NoIsolation,” explains Dr Chandratillake, who is course director at the Genomic Medicine Programme, which is part of the University of Cambridge Institute of Continuing Education. “We did that twice – once in January and then last month. The university was very supportive but didn’t have a mechanism for this technology so it was about working something out. Maybe some people thought it was a bit off the wall but it was very successful.”
Of the two participants, Quan Yang is a London-based pharmaceutical assessor and Neeta Lakhani is a paediatrician living in Milton Keynes.
“There wasn’t a centre for new mothers so we had to find a solution, which we did.”
“It’s all part of a masters in genomic medicine,” adds Dr Chandratillake.
The Cambridge Genomic Medicine programme emerged from the 100k Genomes Project, a UK Government initiative to sequence whole genomes from National Health Service patients. The NHS didn’t have any trained staff in the subject, so the masters degree was created.
“I have two cohorts of this masters course running at once. We have hundreds of students involved.”
The programme is part of Health Education England’s national Genomic Education Programme with the University of Cambridge in partnership with the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Wellcome Genome Campus Advanced Courses and Scientific Conferences, and the European Bioinformatics Institute.
“I have plans to use AV1s again as and when they’re needed. I have a lot of mature students so things do happen – broken legs, heart attacks. There’s no point having undue stress. If you can’t physically attend then we would consider it, but we don’t anticipate having a roomful of avatars – though some people may be!”
There were some hiccups. It turns out that the wifi signal in Hinxton – one of the key global centres for genomics – apparently isn’t up to 4G reception so wireless was used instead. But NoIsolation “provides excellent support so if the wireless network went down they’ll reboot the avatar – as soon as the wireless signal was strong it was fine”.
“I’m hopeful that other groups in the University of Cambridge will be able to use this for teaching in such situations now that they know it is available and hopefully, through telling this story, more people will find all sorts of uses for such enabling technology.”
“We are committed to helping all isolated groups, so we were delighted to see AV1 assisting new mothers achieve their studies,” said Harriet Gridley, a spokesperson for NoIsolation. “The AV1 was specifically designed for children suffering with long-term illness, and it’s very exciting to see its potential in helping other people as well.”
Whether the AV1 will make more friends and influence people depends on a number of factors, but clearly there are some AV1d fans already.