DIY Robots Provide Therapy for Children

Past the maze of iPhone cases and bluetooth gadgets at the International Consumer Electronics Show, I found a trio of colorful robots, twirling and reacting to their surroundings. Named Romibo, the robot was designed to interact therapeutically with autistic children in our hyper-stimulated world.

Romibo, designed by a Carnegie Mellon research group and Origami Robots, are simple in design — just fabric and moving eyes on a gum-dropped-shaped robot. That’s it. The customizable robots lack typical facial features like mouths and ears to avoid visually overwhelming autistic children. The therapy comes mostly from the eyes. With what the researchers believe to be the “windows into the soul,” the robots react by moving their synthetic eyes in response to children’s movements and sounds picked-up by its sensors. For instance, if a child yells at a Romibo and pushes it away, the robot reacts by showing that it’s hurt. These isolated interactions are teaching moments for the children, and gradually become more complex and human-like until children are able to cope with nuanced and unpredictable everyday life.

Origami Robots and the Quality of Life Technology Center (QoLT) at Carnegie Mellon University, created Romibo using the Arduino microcontroller robotic platform. The project’s findings showed that robots can act as pets by providing a friendly and simple playmate for the oft overwhelmed autistic children. The concept of using robots for therapy is not new. However, the do-it-yourself spin on building the robot from a flat-pack kit is an effective way to engage the consumer community and make Romibo more accessible and affordable to families.

Origami Robots’ Project Director Aubrey Schick explains, “Our task is to make the benefits of robot therapy available to the general public … since existing prototype robots are too expensive. We have developed a low-cost robot prototype kit designed for not only education and fun, but also social therapy research.”

The researchers hope that the robot has a future beyond education and therapy. They built it upon the open source platform to invite users to customize robots into unforeseen uses in the spirit of the growing DIY movement.

Currently, Romibo is MAC/PC/Android/iPad compatible and is set to release to market this year.

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