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Sarasota Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021 7 months ago

Ohmni Robot lets SMH patients virtually explore Ringling Museum

Hospital patients can take control of the 18-pound robot to explore the Ringling Museum's 66 acres.
by: Mark Bergin Staff Writer

Ringling Museum Education Assistant Brooke Wessel remembers when the Ohmni Telepresence Robot arrived around Thanksgiving 2020.

Born out of the COVID-19 pandemic, The Ringling began a partnership with Sarasota Memorial Hospital in January to allow hospital patients to control the 18-pound machine virtually. Using the robot they’ve nicknamed “Arty,” patients can explore the 66-acre museum without physically being there.

“Whenever we first started this program, we wanted to almost give them a form of escapism where they can kind of like leave the hospital mentally,” Wessel said. “As we’ve been doing the program, I definitely have found that people aren’t forgetting that they’re sick. They’re not forgetting that they’re in a hospital.

“They’re in the situation, but they are finding moments of peace within that and moments of happiness.”

Patients can choose whether they want Ringling visitors to be able to see their faces through the Ohmni robot's screen.

Both SMH and The Ringling have personnel on their ends to ensure the technology is functioning properly. Wessel is in charge of leading the tours with the robot on The Ringling’s end.

“Patients seem to just love it,” said Lucelly Alarcon, SMH’s specialty program coordinator. “It’s kind of a little bit of distraction. They enjoy the interaction with the arts while they’re here in the hospital. They get to kind of take a little break from all the medical stuff and just kind of enjoy something pretty to look at.”

Wessel said The Ringling acquired the $2,699 robot using funds through the Community Foundation of Sarasota grant for Visual Thinking Strategies programming.

OhmniLabs co-Founder and CEO Dr. Thuc Vu said patients are able to control the robot using a device’s web browser, which operates like a video game. SMH uses an iPad.

“Basically, you can drive the robot around and look around,” Vu said. “The robot has two cameras, one front-facing and one downward-facing, so the seniors can see the artwork on the wall, but they can also see the ground where they’re driving to avoid obstacles (and) navigate the space.”

The battery-powered machine features a 4K ultra-wide-angle camera with a display touchscreen, tilting neck, far-field speaker and microphone. Visitors physically at the museum can also see the face of the virtual user operating the Ohmni robot, though virtual users can also choose an option where their faces aren’t shown.

Alarcon said SMH plans to allow its patients in orthopedics and its medical-surgical department to use the robot this fall. The program is free for patients.

Ringling Museum education assistant Brooke Wessel leads virtual tours using the 18-pound Ohmni Telepresence Robot.

Wessel credits her previous experience with a similar VTS program when she worked in 2017 at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa.

“They are able to get closer than they would be on site because there’s no way security is letting somebody get this close. And like breathing on the (paintings) — we don’t want that,” Wessel said. “We keep our art very safe, so if I can have a camera close to it, they’re able to see a lot more detail than even people visiting on site.”

Vu stressed the importance for long-term hospital patients and seniors to have strong social connections.

“Isolation and loneliness are one of the biggest health challenges for the seniors in recent years,” Vu said. “There was a study from the U.K. showing that loneliness is actually more harmful than obesity with a senior, increasing the risk of early death.”

Alarcon echoed Vu’s sentiments about patients having social interaction.

“It’s very important, especially now since for a while here, we haven’t been allowing any visitors and all of that because of the COVID restrictions,” Alarcon said.

SMH offers other programs, such as pet therapy, and offers patients virtual reality headsets.

Technology like the Omni Telepresence Robot is becoming more common, even in people’s homes. Vu said one robot has even helped save a woman’s life after she fell and couldn’t get up. The woman’s son took control of the robot to check on his mom.

“She couldn’t speak English that well either, so he was there to talk to the emergency team and make sure sure that she was safe and also comfort her through the whole ordeal,” Vu said.

Vu has personally used an Ohmni robot to interact with his grandma during the pandemic. While Vu was in California, his grandma was in south Vietnam. She showed him how to cook pho.

“That’s the main goal for us is to bring value to our end-user, through the robot,” Vu said.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify one of Wessel’s quotes

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Mark Bergin is the Longboat Key Town Hall reporter for the Observer. He has previously worked as a senior digital producer at WTSP, the CBS affiliate in St. Petersburg. Mark is a graduate of the University of Missouri and grew up in the Chicagoland area.

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