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A project at the Georgia Institute of Technology lets children with cognitive and motor-skill disabilities show robots how to fire birds at pigs


Many kids with cognitive and motor-skill disabilities have to practise simple movements over and over again to master them. This can be tedious and unmotivating, so Georgia Tech researchers have had the awesome idea of including robots in the learning process to make the experience more entertaining.

Kids show robots how to shoot Angry Birds on a tablet, a movement which the robot repeats. This is fun for the children and puts them in the position of being the teacher rather than the student.

Ayana Howard, professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is leading the project. She tells PSFK:

The project is part of my larger national science foundation initiative focused on designing assistive robots for child therapy. The inspiration for this came from seeing how pervasive tablets and Apps were for kids and trying to capitalize on its natural appeal for therapy.

The researchers pair a small humanoid robot with an Android tablet. Kids show the robot how to play by dragging their finger on the tablet to launch birds at pigs. The robot observes, noticing where the fingers start and stop and how the objects interact onscreen. When it’s the robot’s turn, it mimics the child’s gesture, motivating them to repeat the movement until its successful.

The robot also mimics emotional reactions to the progress of the game, making it a social experience. If the bird doesn’t hit a target, the robot shakes its head in disappointment but if it succeeds, the robot’s eyes light up and it celebrates with a happy sound and a dance.

Howard explains that this social interaction is crucial:

When children have an engaging, social, playmate, they tend to want to engage with their ‘friend’ for longer periods of time. We can utilize this type of relationship to encode therapy protocols – such as reinforcing appropriate social behaviors and increasing communication skills or increasing the amount of reaching motions necessary for improving a child’s motor skills.

The team aims to make the robot a rehabilitation tool for kids with cognitive and motor-skill disabilities. The robot could be programmed to respond to the individual needs of the child, such as helping them to practice hand-eye coordination tasks or turn-taking.

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The team is developing a robot that could assist with in-home rehabilitation, Howards explains:

We are currently working on designing a new socially assistive robot that is low-cost and robust enough to work in the home environment. This would enable just-in-time therapy opportunities.

This would prevent both children and adults from getting bored during rehabilitation sessions at home, which often involve repeating the same action hundreds of times. By turning this practice into a game with an animated robot, it can become less of a chore and more enjoyable for the child.

Next steps for the project include adding more games to the process, such as Candy Crush and ZyroSky and recruiting more children diagnose with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and children with motor impairments to try out the system.

There are many reasons why this project will appeal to kids. It involves gaming, which is naturally motivating, it includes an animated toy that children will naturally engage with, kids teach the robots to do things rather than the other way around and the robot is on their side, commiserating if they lose and celebrating if they win.

By combining Angry Birds with a humanoid robot, Georgia Tech’s team has come up with a brilliant way to make rehabilitation rewarding for kids with disabilities.

[h/t] Futurity, Georgia Tech

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