OMAHA — Eric Iler laughed with his kids, paused for a family photo and took in the sights at the Omaha zoo's Asian Highlands exhibit — and he did it all from his hospital room at Immanuel Rehabilitation Institute.
Iler was operating "Well-e," a robot with video-call capabilities, from his hospital room. The robot livestreamed his family and a tour guide who were physically at the zoo last month.
The Elgin, Nebraska, family was the first to experience the virtual tour, a partnership between CHI Health and the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium.
Iler, 48, has been at the Omaha institute since mid-August recovering from a spinal cord injury that resulted from a car crash.
"Watch out, I don't have any brakes on this thing," said Iler, smiling. His family could see his face on Well-e's screen as the robot rolled up a hill.
Theresa Johnson, a longtime volunteer with the zoo, led Iler's wife, Jennifer, and their three children around the exhibit, pausing occasionally as Iler and his physical therapist handled the robot's controls.
Johnson said she thinks the virtual tour is "an amazing way to reach out to people and families of patients who are otherwise unable to experience (the zoo)."
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The virtual tour is new, but the technology behind Well-e was originally intended to be used for patient care. It facilitates consultations for patients who are unable to travel to the institute.
CHI Health's virtual-care team realized the technology had a greater potential, said Mike Masker, director of rehabilitation at the Immanuel institute.
"We looked to create virtual experiences for our patients, and the first partner we chose was the zoo," Masker said. "The technology really was intended for something else, but that's how innovation works, right?"
One Well-e is currently being used for virtual tours, but Masker said the team might add more depending on demand.
Elizabeth Mulkerrin, the zoo's director of education, said she believes Well-e is the first robot offering a virtual tour of a zoo, and she hopes to see something similar introduced at zoos around the country.
To Iler, the moment was less about being the first to use Well-e or seeing the animals — he just wanted to watch his family experience the zoo.
He smiled as Jennifer paused to take a photo of Well-e.
"It was fun to be able to watch my children have that experience of going," Iler said.