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Robot helps Redwood City boy experience Santa Rosa summer camp


When Peter Hanson arrived at summer camp Wednesday morning, he instantly made dozens of friends. Hanson, after all, was the only camper with a laser hand, gyroscopic wheels for legs and a robot body.

"This is Peter. He's attending camp today via robot," co-director Katie Faircloth told a room of 100 intrigued kids aged 4 to 12. "Isn't that super cool?"

Nearly every kid at Steve and Kate's Camp thought it was as they craned to get a look at the robot that Hanson, 9, drove remotely from his house in Redwood City.

Hanson was born with a heart defect and needed a transplant by age 2. He was later diagnosed with a rare lung disorder and, on his 8th birthday, an adult form of lymphoma.

In June, the Make-A-Wish Foundation partnered with Anybots, a Santa Clara-based virtual presence company, to give Hanson RoBob, an adjustable-height robot that resembles a Segway with a video conference screen.

When he is too sick to leave the house, the robot allows Hanson to go to class, visit Six Flags or attend summer camp with his peers.

"It's cool just riding around," said Hanson, who is going into fourth grade. "It feels like I can be anywhere in the world."

RoBob is equipped with a speaker, camera, video screen and laser pointer and connects to the Internet over Wi-Fi, allowing Hanson to communicate with almost no lag time. He uses his computer keyboard to control the robot that can roll anywhere most wheelchairs can go, and students in the camp can see him on the robot's video screen.

"This is by far my favorite use of this technology," said Noland Katter, business development executive for Anybots.

As the unofficial robot wrangler, Katter travels with the machine, sets up the technology and interfaces with Hanson.

The devices hit the consumer market in 2010 and retail for about $7,600, Katter said. The technology has many uses in the corporate world such as virtual meetings, factory tours, quality control and tele-working. Katter even went to a wedding where two people from New Zealand attended via robot.

"We're still in the phase of market acceptance," he said. "It's starting to catch on quite rapidly."

Hanson spent most of his day virtually hanging out with other kids his age, who were happy to show him around the camp at Sonoma Country Day School north of Santa Rosa. He took in a big cat show featuring bobcats and ocelots and played chess using his laser to point out moves.

"I made friends," he said. "The wild cats were pretty cool."

Campers followed Hanson around all day peppering him with questions about his robot and his interests.

"It's cool to think that he could be on the other side of the country but it feels like he's right here," said Emily Johnson, 10. "Also it's kind of cool that he has a laser for an eye."

Angela Wilson, 7, had only heard about robots in class before today.

"This is awesome, a real robot at school!" she said. "I'm really into robotics."

Sara Langer, North Bay Regional Director for Steve and Kate's Camp, said it was exciting for the kids to experience Hanson's robot.

"You can see that they are taking ownership in looking out for him," she said. "The kids are excited to have the opportunity to learn from him."