Robotic assistant allows DSU professor to appear virtually on campus

Feb. 5, 2019

This is a paid piece sponsored by Dakota State University

Navigating the Dakota State University campus can be especially hard for associate professor Chris Olson during the winter.

A 2001 car accident while attending DSU as a student left him as a C5 quadriplegic, with plates implanted in his neck that become painful in the cold. Add in the snow and ice on campus, and it can be safer and more comfortable for Olson to work from home.

But now, he can have a physical presence on campus even when working remotely.

That’s thanks to Cosmo, a telepresence robot named for Olson’s favorite “Seinfeld” character, Cosmo Kramer.

Olson controls Cosmo, whose head is an iPad, using a web browser and arrow keys.

“Cosmo allows me to attend meetings or teach classes in the comfort and warmth of my own home,” he said.

“He allows me to be on campus much easier, and without as much pain.”

Olson has approached his education and career with resilience and persistence. He came back after his accident to pursue a master’s degree and now teaches a variety of programming courses to undergraduate and graduate students, specializing in web programming.

“Chris is a valued member of the College of Business and Information Systems faculty, and we welcome the assistance that Cosmo provides for him,” said Dorine Bennett, dean of the college.

“Chris has been able to attend meetings and visit with students as a ‘virtual’ person, who can see and hear others, as well as be seen and heard by them. Chris’ can-do attitude and his use of technology are great, and everyone enjoys experiencing Cosmo in action.”

Olson was inspired to start working with Cosmo by fellow professor Kevin Smith, who teaches mathematics education. Smith secured grant funding to purchase Dewey the robot last year, allowing for faculty to attend meetings remotely and for students to virtually attend classes.

As Cosmo becomes part of the campus community, Olson believes the robot will make an impact on students and faculty.

“I have had a student come to my office for a meeting. We spoke about his schedule for summer classes and things like that through Cosmo. Students think it’s really cool just to interact with a robot. Like Dewey, he can also help sick or injured students attend classes, so they don’t miss out anything,” he said.

Because Cosmo’s head is an iPad, it can be programmed with apps. Those would assist with controlling lights, doors and elevators.

“It would also be nice to control the classroom projectors, so that if I was in the classroom with students, I can lecture the same way I would if I were physically present,” Olson said. “It’s kind of limited right now, but we’re hoping that we can be innovative and come up with some solutions for those barriers.”

Olson hopes Cosmo also helps educate the broader community about this emerging technology, which can be useful for telecommuters and provide more of a physical presence than a phone call, FaceTime or Skype meeting. Cosmo and robots like him allow interaction with multiple people at the same time and also can take photos of events while there.

For Olson, it’s the latest chapter in a career made possible by a school committed to finding solutions.

“DSU has been very accommodating to me. Dr. Tom Halvorson hired me and Dr. Dorine Bennett has been very helpful,” he said.

“President (José-Marie) Griffiths has also helped me and supports anything that will assist me and my situation. Those three people have been great to me. Otherwise, I don’t know if I could have a career, and I really enjoy being able to teach and give back, despite my limitations.”

Robotic assistant allows DSU professor to appear virtually on campus

Meet Cosmo, the newest addition to Dakota State’s campus and an example of all the good technology can do.

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