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August 19. 2013 12:31AM

Getting a view of the Steel City

Robot gives Manchester kids a virtual zoo tour


Mia Katane, a preschooler is helped by Angela Paris, with VGo in Nashua, as she operates the robot remotely, during the virtual Pittsburgh Zoo tour by students at Little Frogs & Polliwogs Daycare, with help from Verizon Wireless and VGo, a remote robot built in Nashua, in Manchester, on Wednesday. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader)

MANCHESTER — More than two dozen children at a city day care visited the Pittsburgh Zoo last week, going behind the scenes to see penguins and tortoises and to question their keepers.

They visited the zoo while seated on their classroom floor at Little Frogs & Polliwogs, 3011 Brown Ave.

The zoo visit was accomplished with a 4-foot-tall camera-and-Internet-enabled robot. Using a laptop and computer mouse on a classroom table, 3-, 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds took turns guiding the robot through the zoo more than 600 miles away.

Mia Katane, 5, was the first robot operator. "Hi," she said to Katie and Dan, whose image was projected on a screen.

The duo explained the robot can't climb stairs, but can go anywhere the operator wants on a level surface. The robot, which weighs just 18 pounds with its rechargeable six-hour battery, allows two-way streaming.

The children didn't question the technology behind the zoo visit. But they had lots of questions about the penguins and, later, the turtles.

They asked Katie how fast penguins can swim (as fast as a dolphin), what happens if the penguins don't catch the fish the zoo staff toss in the water (the fish are "fished out" and given to the penguins on land), do penguins have teeth (no, they have barbs on their tongues that help propel the whole fish down their throats), do they sleep standing or on their bellies (they can do either, but they don't sleep for hours like people do. They just take naps).

Katie, who introduced herself as "the penguin keeper," took the children inside the penguin enclosure, where they wouldn't be able to go if they were actually at the zoo.

While the the children could see and hear Katie and the penguins, the robot couldn't provide some qualities of an in-person visit. "You couldn't smell them or feel how cold it is," she said, explaining the enclosure is kept at 42 degrees.

Katie talked about different types of penguins, including the Macaroni penguin, which has yellow feathers on its head.

Lorelai Randlett, 5, asked: "Why are they named Macaroni?" Katie said the yellow feathers reminded the people who first saw them of the song "Yankee Doodle" that goes: "He put a feather in his cap and called it macaroni."

She explained that penguins can go fast because they are shaped like torpedos. She said their body is the boat, their wings are oars, their feet are paddles and their tail is the rudder.

Six-year-old Brandon Nguyen was in charge of the mouse when the robot took the children to see the turtles and learn about them from Jen. "Hi, Jen," the children called out, waving at the screen. Some of the turtles were in tanks of water, include a sea turtle whose shell was cut in a boating incident. "He's learning to swim again," said Jen.

When she held up another sea turtle, whose flippers were in constant motion, the kids began to imitate the turtle, waving their arms wildly.

How old is that turtle? One year old. Is it a boy or a girl? It's too soon to tell. How far do sea turtles travel? Jen said some of them ride the Gulf Stream up and down the East Coast. She said satellite tags are put on turtle's shells before they are released and most last about a year before they fall off as the shells grow. She said Ghostbuster traveled about 10,000 miles in the year before his tag fell off.

Katane asked: "How do you tell the turtles apart?" By the patterns, according to Jen, although they do change as the turtles grow. As for determining the sex of a turtle, Jen said: "Tails are the best way to tell apart the girls and boys." But she said the turtles at the zoo are still too young to be able to tell their sex.

Sound quality wasn't always the best and one of the zoo keepers was clearly taken aback by what she thought one of the children had asked. VGo spokesperson Angela Paris, who was acting as a helper for the mouse operators, realized what had happened and quickly repeated the question with an emphasis on the end of the last word: "How do they breathe? Breathe."

The zoo keeper looked very relieved.

While the Verizon Foundation provided the robot to the Pittsburgh Zoo, which provides interactive zoo tours three times a month, the robot is used more often in business, health care and education.

Michael Murphy, a New England spokesman for Verizon, said Boston Children's Hospital is using one and there will be six units in Massachusetts school districts this fall.

While it seems costly, Murphy said one VGo in a school could serve several children in one day, giving each student the opportunity to interact with classmates and teachers with their face and voice in the actual classroom for a couple of hours. He said it would be paid for out of the special education budget.

Murphy said Nashua-based VGo was among the companies invited to the Verizon innovation center in Waltham, Mass. The goal is to collaborate, adding wireless technology to the companies' products. "We incubate them," said Murphy.

VGo spokesperson Angela Paris said the education market followed the robot's introduction to business and medical use, but it has a huge potential.

The basic VGo robot costs $6,000, with a $1,200 annual subscription. The 4G LTE version, which requires Verizon service, is $6,900. The robot comes with a rechargeable six-hour battery, but Paris said a 12-hour battery is available.


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