Fuzzy robot friend Romibo helps improve youngsters' social skills [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]

With guidance from teachers and therapists, social robot Romibo is helping children develop their social skills.

Carnegie Mellon University graduates Aubrey Shick and Garth Zeglin have created a social therapy robot named Romibo. This small, furry robot was designed with a surprising purpose – to help children with social development.

Therapy programs such as Fine Art Miracles Inc., headquartered in Pittsburgh, use Romibo in schools, libraries and community service centers to help children on the autism spectrum improve their social skills and reduce anxiety.

Fine Art Miracles designs social robot-enhanced art, literacy, social skills, math and science lessons for children with and without autism, a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. The organization also offers fine art lessons and art therapy to people of all ages who have physical, intellectual and emotional problems.

In addition to being adorable, Romibo was designed with classroom and therapeutic applications in mind. It’s durable enough to withstand serious play, and the technology that makes Romibo work is accessible to anyone who can use a tablet.

Romibo moves on two wheels and, weighing between 6 and 7 pounds, is small enough to be picked up by a child. His face is human-like but simplified. With two eyes on a computerized screen, Romibo can follow faces and hold a person’s gaze but blinks to prevent this stare from being too intense. Romibo does not have any other facial features, but he can talk. The iPad that controls his movement also allows Romibo to say words and phrases typed into the iPad. Teachers don’t need advanced technical skills to use Romibo. It’s as easy as using a smartphone app, developers say.

Although Fine Art Miracles is the only organization on the East Coast that uses social robots as a therapy tool, this use is not new, said Jared Peters, co-founder of Origami Robotics. Therapists have used them to help children on the autism spectrum since at least the ’90s. But some types of robots can cost up to $30,000, making them out of financial reach for most local therapy programs, he added.

Romibos are more affordable at $698 each, according to the Origami Robotics website.

Evidence so far has shown a distinct benefit for children who work with Romibo. While it isn’t clear why Romibo helps in this way, the results are evidence enough that this is a path worth looking into.

“I would have parents burst into tears and say, ‘He has never completed an art project before,’ ” Ms. Lojacono said. “We took kids who had an ‘I can’t’ attitude and saw it change.”

While the success of robots such as Romibo as social therapy tools has been well documented, the scientific reason behind it is still unclear.

“My personal take is that since robots are an embodied form [of humans] they elicit a more familiar response in us that we don’t get in a character behind a screen,” Mr. Peters said.

Read the whole article on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette website.

Published June 22, 2015