Lyndon Baty and the Robot That Saved Him

In tiny Knox City, a sick boy and his robot sidekick keep beating the odds.

Education in those early years fell under Sheri's jurisdiction, with Louis, a former math teacher, helping when he could. His mom became his friend, teacher and classmate, Lyndon says. But with the new kidney came real school, the real second grade, and his world opened up beyond home and to school, the world most kids inhabit. He even started running track. It was like the end of Pinocchio, if Pinocchio were obsessed with LeBron: Happily ever after. Normally ever after.

"As normal as normal can be," Lyndon says.

"As normal as you'll ever be," Sheri says.

Before the bot, Lyndon's mom, Sheri, was his only teacher, classmate and school friend.
Dylan Hollingsworth
Before the bot, Lyndon's mom, Sheri, was his only teacher, classmate and school friend.
A trip to the hospital would have to wait until after prom night.
Sheri Baty
A trip to the hospital would have to wait until after prom night.

Details

Email the author at luke.darby@dallasobserver.com.

But Lyndon being Lyndon, the story didn't end there. In eighth grade, his body started rejecting the kidney that gave him his freedom. He went on immunosuppressant drugs to keep the kidney working, and soon he was too immunosuppressed to leave the house, except for trips to the hospital in Dallas. Or the Ronald McDonald House, which despite its best efforts was worse because there was no ESPN. In July 2010, when LeBron James told the world he would take his talents to South Beach, Lyndon was getting live updates from his dad over the phone.

He spent his last summer before high school this way, masked and schlepping from Knox City to Dallas and back. When school finally started Lyndon was back to studying and working at home, but things were worse than before. Not only was it decreed that he couldn't go to school but his contact with people outside the family would be minimal. One of the few non-Batys he saw that fall was Christie Howeth, a counselor at Knox City High. Every day she would pick up the basket of assignments and handouts at school and bring them to Lyndon's house, where he would barrage her with questions. Her husband was a coach at school, so Lyndon over-estimated her sports savvy and wanted to know the inside scoop not only on local sports but on the pros, too. She became Lyndon's one-woman audience for the stats and facts he picked up from ESPN.

The intermittent visits weren't enough to keep Lyndon going, though. Already spindly, he lost energy and weight. He was back on dialysis for 10 hours every night. And he missed school, which in Knox City means missing everything: It's a small school in a small town, where almost all the students are in the same classes, with the same teachers, the same programs. The distance from home to school wasn't a mile and a half. After the driveway it's just three turns — a left, a right and a left — but that's all it took to cut Lyndon off from the whole world.


Before the Roomba there was just Rosie from The Jetsons, an unattainable fantasy, full of impracticalities. Having a robot use arms to push vacuums or work an iron doesn't make sense when you could just build a vacuum or an iron into it. Besides, the human shape is vaguely creepy. That one wheel she used to get around gave terrible stability. And she gave Mr. J such back-sass.

The Roomba, though: The Roomba has been drifting through our homes since 2002, calm as a manta ray and placid enough for us to project personality onto it. The Roomba is the lesson to robot-kind that if they ever do rise up they shouldn't look like the bladed squids from The Matrix or the brawny skeletons from Terminator. They'll need the rounded corners of iPods, and people will coo over them like pets.

The company behind the Roomba is called iRobot. That's where Tom Ryden and Grinnel More worked until 2007, when they left in search of their own robot revolution, wanting to work on something they called a "telephonic presence." They joined forces with More's neighbor, Tim Root, formerly of the videoconferencing company PolyCom.

"With our backgrounds, we knew what we could do on the product side," Ryden says. "And Tim knew the software."

More was the most mechanically minded of the three, and in his basement workshop they put together a prototype. It stood about four feet tall on a wheeled base, with a screen set in the top. It could be remotely controlled via wifi, and it streamed video between it and the computer controlling it. There were loose wires hanging off it, but it worked.

What they'd built was basically a Roomba with Skype. It sounds like a put-down but it's not — that's pretty much what they set out to do. Their goal was to make a simple and streamlined device, the flagship product for their new company, VGo Communications.

Soon they reached out to SKC Communications, a company that sells video processing products. They thought the VGo bot would be a good fit in SKC's product catalog, and SKC agreed, though Victor Cuella, a salesman for the company, still thought it would be a tough sell.

"It's a solution looking for a problem," Cuella says. A few other companies already made teleconferencing robots. InTouch Health has a human-sized device with a rectangular midsection and large screen for a head, used for medical consulting. (A doctor can check patients and facilities at distant hospitals.) It looks more like a "robot" than what Ryden and company designed; it could have been one of the trundling R2 units the Jawas sold in Star Wars. But it also rents for $6,000 a month, as much as the VGo costs to buy.

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11 comments
MisterMean
MisterMean

I seem to recall a similar concept in the Dallas Morning News comic page Baldo where one student (due to immunological illness) went to school via robot.

aparis1
aparis1

@MisterMean Yes, Baldo did do a number of comic strips featuring a Rayna the robot that looks strikingly like VGo :)

gordonhilgers
gordonhilgers

@MisterMean  That's odd.  I seem to recall a Bob Marley and the Wailers song all about "we gonna chase those crazy baldheads outta the town".  I always seemed to think that had something to do with the skinheads prevalent in Deep Ellum in the 1980s, and if I'm not wrong, nary a peep from the conservatrons at DMN.  The somewhat admirable individual (and Liberal) entrepreneurs, with some help from myself and my friends, are the ones responsible for getting the police involved in getting those early incarnations of the Tea Party out of one of the few organic and independently operated entertainment districts the city of Dallas ever had.  Crazy baldheads is exactly what I'd call those misbegotten extremists, and many Dallas cops would agree with us.  I have a bunch of stories to tell about being blond and blue-eyed and getting the Nazi salute from those idiot-heads. 

Baldo?  Right about robotic.  Mechanized.  Wehrmacht. The notion that Nazis were Liberals is simply another "fictional reality" from the mind of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, the woman who wore black leather jackets but never went to South Central Los Angeles with it. 

MisterMean
MisterMean

@gordonhilgers Let me see if I can reiterate (re state) my original comment:

1) the article talks about the use of robotics (a robot) for Lyndon Baty to be able to attend his school.   Also about the history of why he can not attend school in person due to his health.

2) I mentioned the comic pages in the Dallas Morning News-they appear in the Arts & Life section.   There are 2 and 1/2 pages.   B.C., Blondie, Crankshaft, Curtis, Dilbert etc.  They appear every day.

3) on the 1/2 page of comics is a comic written by Hector Cantu and Carlos Castellanos.   The main character is a teenage male named Baldo.  He lives with his father, his Tia (aunt) and his little sister.   The NAME OF THE STRIP IS BALDO!   Baldo is Hispanic.  He has a friend who he hangs out with who, a few weeks ago, dated a girl who, much like Lyndon Baty, could not attend school due to health reasons.  She too was able to attend school by a robot.  There were several days worth of comic strips dealing with how the young lady and Baldo's friend "dated".  

4)  In my comment it was my intention to draw the parallels between this comic strip and real life of Lyndon Baty.

It must have gone over your head.  I do not know where you came up with your response.  It is really off the wall!

gordonhilgers
gordonhilgers like.author.displayName 1 Like

First the Star Trek communicators.  Now the robots.  And they said us hippies were "just kiddin'".  Apparently, dreams can come true for some people, and my empathy and hope goes out to Lyndon.  As a survivor of a life-threatening illness, I know how it feels to stare death in the face.  Nobody to blame, really, but perhaps Rocky Mountain Arsenal.  But I'm not fighting them.  No way in hell.  I do blame the Soviets.  Lyndon's a good name for a Texan.  Big shoes to fill. 

Good luck, Lyndon.  You have a good day. 

gordonhilgers
gordonhilgers like.author.displayName 1 Like

Of course, we could mention li'l Ricky Perry's big giveaway to his buddy, Harold Simmons, who wants to put a nuclear waste dump in West Texas.  The whole state of Nevada turns-out to stop the Nukie-poo-poo, but li'l Ricky never gave a crap about U-238, because, after all, when we protested with CPLF in 1980, we were all Commies. 

Li'l Ricky:  Sit on that and rotate. 

dfwenigma
dfwenigma

I see huge application to all sorts of things for this robot. I hope they're collecting data from it that they can use to improve the robots and make them even more anthromorphic. The robots need to be able to go where kids would go in a natural way. It's nice to know my iRobot has a cousin and that it had the same parents as this robot. We'll look back on this as the beginning of something great.

wilme2
wilme2

Good story.  Forwarding via e-mail and posting it to Facebook...

jwmplano
jwmplano

Great writing and very inspiring especially when most of what you see in the media are the examples of bad behavior and people's inhumanity. What an attitude Lyndon has. Now if he could only bottle it, many of us could use some now and then.

Robby746
Robby746

Need more stories of this sort.  Very good.

Anna_Merlan
Anna_Merlan like.author.displayName 1 Like

This was really, really good. Nice work, Luke. 

 
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