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Schools and therapists work under the rising financial pressure, which makes it difficult to provide high-quality care, especially for autistic spectrum disease (ASD) children. Current research tries to address this problem by developing interactive robots for children but the technology is still maturing. This is why the international consortium consisting of 2 companies and 6 research institutions in January 2016 started the BabyRobot project – research and development project (R&D) on the new generation of communication and collaboration robots for children.
Challenge of child-robot interaction
As the classes at schools are getting bigger, there is a need to give the children individual support and time. Because of the educational sector’s tight budgets, children who encounter individual challenges in elementary school like stuttering, poor concentration, language learning (e.g. for immigrants) or are on the autism spectrum, can count on only little extra time of special education per week. This is not a sufficient support for the inclusion of children with difficulties or autism. Robots can become a supporting tool in solving this issue as they can provide additional special attention and serve as assistants to the teachers. Previous research showed that autistic children exhibit preferences to computer-based and mechanical games.
Many autistic people are drawn to technology, particularly the predictability it provides, which means it can be a very useful means of engaging children, and adults too. – told Carol Povey, director of the National Autistic Society’s Centre for Autism to Reuters.
The challenge is that current social robots have limited response capabilities. This is why BabyRobot project aims at creating robots that analyze and track human behavior in different situations. Thus, provide a natural interaction flow, comfortable for the children. The BabyRobot project intends to define, implement and evaluate child-robot interaction application scenarios for developing specific communication and collaboration skills in typically developing (TD) and autistic spectrum disease (ASD) children.
Once the researchers, engineers, and companies defined the goals for the development of the new communication and collaboration robot for children, the consortium applied for funding from the European programme, Horizon 2020. The BabyRobot project started in January 2016 and will run until the end of 2018.
The first year of the project consisted of intense research and defining scenarios for possible child-robot interactions. Blue Ocean Robotics co-created 15 scenarios where kids are involved in different games with robots – like rock-paper-scissors or educational quizzes. Robots do not only accompany children in learning through play but also help them with recognizing emotions. The scenarios were constructed using existing robotic hardware, like Blue Ocean Robotics’ ZENO. All interactions were designed in a close collaboration with schools and teachers.
Working with end-users, in this case, the children and their teachers, and focusing on their special needs has always been an integral part of our work strategy. We believe this is the best way to develop the most accurate solutions and create a robot that will fully address children’s needs.
Franziska KirsteinProject Manager and Human-Robot Interaction Expert at Blue Ocean Robotics
The second year of the project was focused on the development of the robotics technology allowing precise move and speech recognition, motion planning and control in constrained spaces, gestural kinematics, sensorimotor learning, and adaptation. Defined scenarios were tested – the children and the robot interacted for 15 – 45 minutes, what allowed for data collection on both kids and robot’s learning process. These efforts are contributing to the development of a new technology platform – TP-Interact. TP-Interact is a technology platform allowing the human-robot interaction including voice, gesture, eye-tracking, hands, pose, center-of-mass, emotions, and facial recognition. The year 2018 will be devoted to data analysis and further necessary tests.
Prospects for the future
After the pilot experiments, the process of data analysis has now begun. Preliminary results show that children are able to maintain their focus longer while interacting with a robot. However, there is a difference in the results depending on the age of the children and the different levels of symptom severity in children with ASD. Blue Ocean Robotics is also working on a commercialization plan for the new solution. The investment and product development teams are investigating the market and business potential of the new product. Additional funding might be necessary to fully commercialize the new product.
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