Smart teddy bear knows how you feel


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Smart teddy bear knows how you feel

The new teddy is designed to recognise you, respond if you cuddle it and tell medical staff if anything's wrong (Image: iStockphoto)

An electronic teddy bear inspired by therapeutic companion animals could offer hospital and nursing home patients a meaningful form of treatment without the worry of allergies, bites or maintenance.

The Huggable, designed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is based on a traditional stuffed animal but is actually much more.

It will be loaded with full-body sensors, motors, microphones, a video camera, software and wireless communication technology to produce an engaging response to humans.

The bear is also designed to monitor the patient, alert nearby nurses when the person may need help or more intensive, long-term care and even gather information about the interaction that can be used to better understand the relationship later.

"We are designing the Huggable to be much more than a fun, interactive robotic companion, but rather to function as a team member that works with both the patient or resident and the hospital or nursing home staff with the ultimate goal of promoting the wellbeing of the person," says Walter Dan Stiehl, a PhD candidate at MIT and the team leader for the project.

The first Huggable prototype, which Stiehl and his team plan on finishing in the next few months, will have more than 1000 sensors beneath the fur and a soft layer of silicone skin.

The temperature, force, and electric field sensors will work together to distinguish the presence of a human, pick up some of the physiological signs of the patient's condition and discern whether the person is petting, scratching, slapping or hugging the bear.

Cameras in the eyes will be used to scan the room, while face recognition technology in the robot's computer will help the Huggable detect familiar people. Microphones in the ears will allow it to hear and face the direction of a sound.

Senses pain then acts on it Stiehl and his team are programming the bear to exhibit different behaviours based on what it sees, hears and senses.

If it sees someone familiar, it can raise its eyebrows in an expressive greeting and say hello. While being rocked it will wear an expression of happiness and when being cuddled, it will nuzzle into the person.But the concept for the Huggable does not focus on simply providing companionship.

The technology will be designed to work with a separate computer located at a nurse's station, where video, audio, or other data collected by the bear's sensors could alert caregivers in times of potential crisis.

For example, if a patient is hugging the bear and then it falls to the floor, that action could prompt a nurse to check that all's well.

Long-term care The Huggable can also collect information about the patient-bear interaction over a long period of time.

Any changes, such as the patient suddenly becoming aggressive or showing far less activity, may offer subtle indications of more serious problems.

"We've not adequately used technology to help older people and this is one potential in which we could do that," says Rebecca Johnson, professor of aged care nursing at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

Stiehl's group is finalising the first prototype and hopes to have at least 10, if not 20, Huggables available for pilot trials in about a year's time.

Tracy Staedter, Discovery News, Tuesday, 15 August 2006