Travels with Gita
- Innovation for Ageing, Culture & Society, Mobility & Transport
- Clive Carr
In 1961 American author John Steinbeck wrote his travelogue ‘Travels with Charley’ depicting his journey across the USA in a campervan with his poodle, Charley. He recounts the various meetings along the way with different characters, but the star of the show is undoubtedly Charley.
Had Steinbeck lived in Newcastle upon Tyne in 2021, his book could easily have been called ‘Travels with Gita’.
So, you may ask ‘Who or what is Gita?’
Gita – pronounced jee-ta – is a companion cargo-carrying robot developed by Piaggio in 2017 and became available to purchase in the USA in 2019. It arrived in Newcastle in 2020 when the National Innovation Centre for Ageing (NICA) undertook a project to look at the effects this robot could have on older adults. As part of this research project, VOICE® members were asked to try out Gita in various situations and give feedback.
That is where I came in!
Meet – My first sighting of Gita was at The Catalyst on a warm spring day. Now as a committed cynic I had reservations about this little robot, but after a brief explanation we were let loose. My very first memory of the day is the sound of it starting up. Quiet bleeps and a whirring sound, very endearing. Off we went, me walking with my companion a meter behind. At first, I was very aware of its presence, but this quickly wore off and I trundled about seeing what it would do and if I could I easily lose it. No, as it turned out, not quite so easy.
So that was the practical part – walking and moving – but what about the visual effect of us unlikely pair on those around us? I noticed that people were looking at Gita. Those who know The Catalyst will know that a route into the West End of the city goes by its main doors. It’s a route well trafficked by students, as well as people wanting a traffic-free walk in and out of the city – kids on bikes, parents with toddlers, that type of thing.
As I negotiated the pavements, I was asked questions along the lines of ‘What’s that, mister?’.
I quickly learned that not only does Gita encourage people to walk, it also encourages conversation!
As this was a research project, my wanderings with Gita and my verbal feedback were filmed and recorded. My cynicism had, to a degree, evaporated and I had given my Gita its own personality – I had talked to it and introduced it to a small child!
My lasting memory is that the meeting with Gita had been fun. It got me walking, it got me talking to strangers, and it got me thinking about how I could use it.
Having finished for the day, my experience became a talking point amongst family and friends. And although there were some questions around practicalities and cost, I always went back to the fun element.
Publicity – It had been a few months since I’d seen Gita, so I was surprised to receive an email from VOICE® letting me know Gita was in ‘The Times’ with a link to the article. My surprise increased on opening this link and seeing a picture of me and Gita. Me in ‘The Times’ - my moment of fame!
Television – So I’d had my moment of fame, but more was to follow! Another email from VOICE® – would I consider appearing on the Channel 4 daytime show ‘Steph’s Packed Lunch’ with Nic Palmarini? Well, that took all of a nano-second to answer.
After numerous emails with Charlotte from the NICA team, calls from Channel 4 producers, and one false start (daytime TV scheduling can be very flexible, I was told), off to Leeds I go. I have my own car due to COVID-19 restrictions, but I am relieved to see another taxi pass me with Gita sitting in the back seat. If it had been a child, I’m sure a tongue would have been stuck out.
My biggest fear was that I would get lost and not find the studio, but Gita is hard to miss and made Nic and Charlotte – neither of whom I had met before – easy to spot.
So, we get our instructions from a member of the production crew and get into the studio for a rehearsal. Nic and I sit like well behaved, if somewhat bemused, schoolboys whilst presenter Steph McGovern and Gita get to know each other. All is well and we wait for our live appearance.
It turns out that live, daytime TV happens very quickly, and it is live – honestly! The advertisement break starts, and you’re ushered into the studio whilst the previous contributors are ushered out. Gita is in position and the audience applaud as Steph walks around the studio with her, following with beeps and whirs. Then its Nic, then it’s me, then it’s Nic, then it’s over.
I’m told it was a seven-minute segment. It felt like 30 seconds.
Then we give back the microphones and are ushered out onto the street – or, more accurately, the concrete concourse. But guess what, people see Gita and conversations start. We even have a conversation with a traffic warden and, no, she wasn’t after giving Gita a ticket!
It hasn’t happened yet, but who knows?
From volunteering to lending a hand in a research project to national daytime television, all because of Gita.
My thoughts months ago were that Gita was fun. I can now see loads of uses, but the main thing to me is still fun. Gita puts a smile on my face and yes, makes me happy!
In ‘Travels with Charley’ Steinbeck famously writes: ‘A sad soul can kill quicker, far quicker, than a germ’
As we get older it’s important to remember that quote.