Technology is a key area of development for autism treatment. Entrepreneurs at Arlington-based Hanson Robokind aren’t just writing software; they’ve created a new platform to deliver computer based lessons: His name is ‘Zeno’, a 27-inch life like talking robot and it set to be a game-changer in the world of treatment for mid and higher functioning children with autism.
While ‘Zeno’ may look like a toy, it is actually a $16,000 humanoid robot is a prototype set for mass production this summer, “I am the latest technology in autism therapy from Hanson Robokind. I have a wide range of expressions … I can also connect to the internet and send videos and summaries of each session to the parents and doctors to help evaluate learning and development.”
Fred Margolin, Hanson Robokind CEO says Zeno is “going to revolutionize the amount of treatment kids can get and also the quality of the treatment and also by the way, how the kids are going to feel about the treatment. They’re not going to feel pressure or put on or anything like that because they’re going to have fun with the robot.”
Experts at the Autism Treatment Center of Dallas have already been astounded by the impact, “We took the robot over to work with two mid to lower spectrum kids who had not been talking whatsoever to staff and in ten minutes the kids started talking to the robots, the staff was teared up and crying,” says Margolin.
One theory, says Margolin, is that children find robots less threatening and infinitely patient in situations where repetition is critical to learning. Hi-definition cameras in Zeno’s eyes allow therapists to monitor sessions remotely.
Another key factor in Zeno’s ability to connect with children with autism is how well he mimics human expressions. The robot’s soft, flexible, life-like skin allow him to smile, frown, and even register disappointment.
“A lot of the therapies that are involved with some of these kids have to do with mimicking things that are appropriate,” says Margolin. “So the robot may say to them, tell me when you think I’m sad, tell me when you think I’m happy, tell me when you think I’m mad at you, tell me when you think I’m disappointed … and the kid will work on it and it’s all based on the ability of the robot to have expressions.”
Margolin says a team of world renowned autism specialists are creating lessons plans –– called modules –– for the line of robots. The ever-changing software is expected to keep interest in the robots high, with its creators arguing that the modules will make the robot less an object of fascination, and will instead simply become a platform for delivering the information.
The mass produced versions will also have modifications that will make them more affordable. Less emphasis, and therefore expense, will be dedicated to having the robot’s body move. But, nine distinct motors in the face will make the mass produced versions even more lifelike. The versions set to roll off assembly lines this summer are expected to cost between $3,000 – $5,000.