GLEN BURNIE, MARYLAND - "I would like for you to have a pencil out on your desk," fifth-grade teacher Mary Fucella said to her reading class at Point Pleasant Elementary School in Glen Burnie, Maryland. A kilometer and a half away, in a pink bedroom, Cloe Gray pulled a pencil out, too, and listened.
Cloe, 11, is at home, recuperating from leg surgery. For the first month after the operation, a home tutor visited her. But the precocious child grew withdrawn and didn't want to leave her bed. She missed routine. She missed her friends. She missed real school.
"You could tell she wasn't happy," said Rob Gray, Cloe's dad.
The Anne Arundel County school system in Maryland had a cure. Cloe now attends class virtually through a $3,000 robot. Hers, which she named Clo-Bot, was donated by the local Rotary Club. Since she began using it, the learning hasn't stopped.
Clo-Bot is basically an iPad attached to a pole on wheels. Cloe uses the keyboard on her home computer to remotely control the device, rolling it into and out of the classroom. She speaks through a headset and is heard through the iPad. When the class breaks up into small groups, one classmate holds materials up to the iPad, and Cloe contributes to the project.
Fucella said Cloe was a little shy at first about "raising" Clo-Bot's hand, "but now I feel like it's just like having the normal Cloe in the classroom."
To answer a question, Cloe clicks on a slider, and the iPad raises to the teacher's eye level. Cloe said the robot had given her confidence to participate. "I'll try it and I'll get it right," she said. "Woo-hoo! Personal victory!"
The Anne Arundel schools have six of the robots. Patrick Malone of the district's Office of Instructional Technology said he and his colleagues had been stunned at their effectiveness.
"Every kid that uses this technology starts to smile again," Malone said. "They start to feel like a regular kid again, and I cannot put a price on that."
Devices like Clo-Bot are the brainchild of Double Robotics, a privately held technology company in Burlingame, California.
The telepresence robot can be used for business or education, anywhere people need a physical presence. Double Robotics co-founder and CEO David Cann said he understood the importance of school attendance, educationally and socially, and that it was humbling "to be able to provide a way for all students to attend school, no matter their situation."
Double Robotics has 300 of its robots in the United States, with 25 others placed in education facilities in China, Japan, Australia and Canada.
When it's lunchtime at Point Pleasant, Cloe's best friend, Kyla Jones, walks with Clo-Bot to the lunchroom. The sight of a fifth-grader walking with an iPad rolling beside her seems like a scene from a science fiction movie.
"At first it was kind of weird because it was Cloe, but not really Cloe," Kyla said. But now, it's natural for the two to discuss, well, whatever fifth-graders discuss. On a recent day, the topic was flip-flops.
Cloe uses the device's 150-degree wide-angle lens to look down as she maneuvers the robot beside the cafeteria table. Cloe's dad delivers her lunch to her desk at home, and classmates start joining Clo-Bot at the lunch table.
Cloe said it's sometimes nerve-racking to enter the lunchroom. "Everyone's like, 'Hi, Cloe!' 'Bye, Cloe!' " she said.
Clo-Bot waits until school is over to get its energy. Cloe maneuvers it to a charging station, where it sits until the bell rings the next morning. Then Cloe will happily drive her virtual self back to Ms. Fucella's class.