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Next Generation Robotic Pets in Development

Robotic pets focus group

Candas Stacey (left) and Kathi Lawrence provide feedback on robotic pets (Lisa Ventre, University of Cincinnati)

15 May 2019. A research team at University of Cincinnati is studying ways robotic pet animals can provide more help to older and infirm individuals. The Cincinnati designers and engineers are continuing work begun in 2017, funded by National Science Foundation, but working with Ageless Innovations LLC, a new corporate partner.

Pet dogs and cats have long been known to provide companionship as well as social and psychological support to people of all ages, particularly older persons who are less mobile, lonelier, and less able to care for themselves. These same factors, however, make it more difficult to care for a live animal pet, and assisted-living facilities in many cases restrict keeping pets for health reasons.

To meet this challenge, researchers at Brown University and toy maker Hasbro proposed developing robotic pet assistants configured as pet cats and dogs, with soft fur, soothing sounds, and sensors that respond to petting and hugs. Hasbro already started its Joy for All toy pet line in 2015, which the Brown University team offered to augment with more day-to-day helpful functions. As reported by Science & Enterprise in November 2017, National Science Foundation awarded about $1 million to the team for the 3-year project.

In May 2018, Hasbro spun-off the Joy for All robotic pet line to the start-up enterprise Ageless Innovations, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island that promised to continue developing its products. Claudia Rebola, an industrial design professor at Cincinnati and the department’s graduate studies coordinator, was part of the original project team while at Rhode Island School of Design. She is now leading the effort to advance the robotic pet technology, working with Ageless Innovations.

Rebola and a team of graduate students held focus group discussions with participants from retirement homes and lifelong learning centers in the region to get reactions to the first generation of robotic pets, which as she describes in a university statement, was also a way to “understanding the user, their needs and how to translate those needs into unique design opportunities for these pets.”

This initial feedback led to a redesign of the robotic dog, which more resembled a stuffed toy than a real animal. With contributions from a nearby faux-fur company, the robotic dog now looks more like a Yorkshire terrier, and is more flexible, like a lap dog.

The findings also pointed out opportunities to upgrade the care-giving help provided by the devices. Among these functions are detection of risky situations to prevent falls, detecting intruders, monitoring vital signs when hugged, tracking sleep patterns, and providing reminders of medications, doctors’ appointments, and recharging the devices. At the same time, the pet robots need to be unobtrusive, and more like partners than overseers.

Jeffrey Schlaudecker, a professor of geriatric medicine at Cincinnati, sees real benefits of robotic pets for his patients. “My patients affected with memory disorders can really benefit from the sensory aspects of a robotic pet,” says Schlaudecker. “Touch, sight and sound can all create a real consecutiveness.” He adds that the devices can also help some patients make transitions from their homes to less-familiar health facilities, which can be traumatic for people with cognitive impairment. “The presence of a known companion that can be transported easily anywhere,” he notes, “can be a great addition to smoothing these sometimes bumpy transitions.”

The following video tells more about the robotic pet project.

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