Therapy Bots


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The word "robot" once elicited images of a boxy, metal dolt lumbering at you out of a B movie. More recently, they're near-unstoppable killers from the future. But the latest batch of consumer robots have another image entirely. They're cute. Cute for a purpose: therapy. Many of the lovable and obedient new robots are not meant to be assistants or terminators, but therapeutic hug machines. The engineers that design and build them need to know as much about what makes something cuddly as they do about what makes them move.

Recent research from Yale University has shown that a good session with a robot can have a positive effect on children with autism. Specifically, autistic children were more likely to look an interviewer in the eye after a bout of robot play. Springing off that research, Aubrey Shick, at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, has designed a simple, cute, and inexpensive robot meant to help the autistic, or anyone with a need for mechanical fuzziness. It's called "Romibo," and looks like a rolling ball of yarn with eyes and antenna. It speaks with R2D2 like chirps, can chase a moving point of laser light, scrams when it hears yelling, and acts cuddly when approached quietly. In essence it's made to respond like a cat.

Making it Predictable

"The robots are very simple looking because children with autism are often overwhelmed by complex facial features, vocal intonation, and body posturing," says Shick. "There are a lot of additional signals when you're trying to get a child to answer, 'Where do you live?' And they're processing all of that.'" So while much robot research elsewhere goes into making a machine as complex and human as possible, Shick has pared things down to eyes on a stick. "For children with autism, it's important for the robot to be predictable," says Shick. "The overwhelming part of the real world is all the unpredictability. Then we can slowly make it unpredictable to get them used to that."

Shick and her team are not the first to make a robot for therapeutic purposes. "The Keepon," for instance, looks like a dancing Peep, and elicits warm feelings from most who come contact with it. But it costs $30,000. A primary goal of Shick's team was to "keep the cost low, and keep it hackable," as Garth Zeglin, the project scientist at the institute responsible for Romibo's inner workings, puts it.

Romibo at the Pittsburgh Mini Maker Faire. Image courtesy of Romibo.org

Keeping Costs Low

For Zeglin, keeping things cheap was part of the fun. Rather than using injection molding, he used flat plastic. "The whole structure can be cut on a laser cutter," he says. The pieces "snap in place and they have a 3-D structure that has rigidity." The method also allows him and Shick to speedily try new elements and design changes. "When you can spin a prototype in an hour, you can just try things and see if they work," he says.

The base holds the electronics and from that sprouts a structure that Zeglin calls the spine. Atop this post floats the head, secured to the base with elastic hair bands, "literally from the drug store," says Zeglin. In essence it's an "actuated bobble-head. When it rolls the natural dynamics are expressive—having a little extra movement gives it a strong illusion of life." There are two windows for two eyes, and inset behind them are two black dots on a single paper. The inset gives Romibo a "Mona Lisa" effect. When looking through a clear pane down to an eye, "It always looks as if it's looking at you," he says. The covering to the robots innards is simply a fabric bag—one that can be swapped for whatever color a child might prefer.

If you want to keep the price down, it's a nice coincidence that cute is simpler than the richer, wiser, and uglier things among us. A cute robot doesn't need a mouth—call it the Hello Kitty effect—especially for autistic children, so Romibo doesn't have one. "These children have a lot of difficulty focusing on eyes," says Shick. "They focus on the mouth when they are looking at the face. Remove the mouth and the only thing to focus on is the eyes."

With the change of focus, they hope, will come a change in the ability to cope with more complex beings in a complex world.

Michael Abrams is an independent writer.

When it rolls the natural dynamics are expressive—having a little extra movement, gives it a strong illusion of life.

Garth Zeglin, project scientist

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December 2012

by Michael Abrams, ASME.org