Sporting KC unveiling robot to help hospitalized kids 'attend' games

Fifteen-year-old Kaylee Brown used to play soccer until cystic fibrosis made it difficult. Now a fan, she's not always able to attend games because of her condition.

So Sporting Kansas City brought the game to Kaylee.

The Major League Soccer team and its stadium sponsor, Children's Mercy Hospital, have been working with a robot named REX that allows hospitalized kids to experience a Sporting game day by virtually taking them to a match.

Kaylee got to test the telepresence robot named REX -- short for Remote Experience -- during a recent hospital stay. REX will make his official debut Wednesday when Sporting hosts the Seattle Sounders.

"Dom Dwyer waved at me!" Kaylee said. "I thought that was really cool."

John Baker, senior analyst for telemedicine and video conferencing at Children's Mercy, has a Sporting KC badge with the enviable title "Robot Handler."

He accompanies REX around the stadium, lending a hand with stairs and elevators and the like. The robot is a 4-foot-tall post with an iPad and camera on top, anchored by wheels similar to a Segway's. The iPad's display shows the kid who is operating REX via another tablet back at the hospital.

There's no question where REX's loyalty lies: The robot wears a Sporting scarf.

REX can go out on the field and interact with players during pregame warmups, mosey through the stadium concourse to greet fans, even visit the Cauldron supporters' section. The only real restriction is that REX can't venture out on the field during play.

"What always surprises me in a good way is how curious people are about the robot and what's going on and how it works," Baker said. "And what that does for us, it makes people want to talk to [the robot], for example Kaylee, to say hi and tell her how awesome it is.

"That's another piece that just really helps transport the kid out of the hospital."

He said the hard part can be teaching children that they are controlling an actual thing and not to run into people or objects at the stadium.

"We've seen that some kids like to try to give hugs," he said.

When Kaylee helped test REX, she participated in a short interview session with an inactive player at halftime, something Sporting does during every game. Kaylee asked midfielder Benny Feilhaber his favorite away stadium to play in. "I like going to Portland," he replied.

She in turn got interviewed by a few curious onlookers.

"I didn't really explain too much, I just said, `Yeah, I'm a robot," she said, laughing.

Kaylee, who is hospitalized three or four times a year because of her condition, is now back at home and wrapping up her sophomore year in high school. She is still able to play volleyball.

REX is a way that Sporting is able to think outside the box when it comes to working with sponsors. Children's Mercy signed a 10-year deal as the naming-rights sponsor for the team's facilities early last year.

Sporting President Jake Reid said he didn't know what he was looking at when he first saw REX on the field.

"We get tunnel vision and we're in sports and we feel it's really important, but when you zoom out and look at what these kids and families are going through, it pales in comparison," Reid said. "This was just a fascinating idea they [Children's Mercy] had about how to connect the kids who can't be there and can't experience a match in person because of what they're going through, and give them a behind-the-scenes feel.

"We were all for it. And I give them all the credit in the world, they brought it to life in a way I never imagined we could."

The idea worked well for Kaylee, she said.

"It was kind of like an escape from the hospital room and the stuff going on there," she said. "And I forgot I was in the hospital for a little bit. It was really fun."