Innovation

Can a robot 'companion' help children with autism?

A smart toy called Leka, released Tuesday on Indiegogo, aims to serve as both friend and educational tool for children with special needs.

Image: Leka

Most of the robots in the world today exist in factories, building cars, boxing items for shipping, moving items in warehouses. But, increasingly, robots will be seen in our everyday lives—as butlers, as crew members of cruise ships, in schools and hospitals and nursing homes. An Indiegogo campaign launched today offers the promise of a robot to help children with special needs.

Leka is a Bluetooth-enabled interactive toy, which can be paired with its corresponding app on a mobile device, and has been scientifically tested over the past two years in France and the US. It can be operated manually, controlled by adults, or in an autonomous mode, with a selection of applications.

The toy is meant to help children by engaging them in games that build motor, cognitive, and emotional skills. According to the release, "As robots have the ability to be predictable in their actions—an important trait for children with developmental disorders—Leka is able to give users a sense of safety. Coupled with this predictability and Leka's capability to stimulate a child's senses, Leka can socially engage children and nurture greater, more efficient progress."

SEE: Alex Truesdell: Maker. Adaptive designer. Advocate for children with special needs.

"Our mission is to help exceptional children live exceptional lives by reducing the learning inequalities that many children with different developmental disorders currently deal with," said Ladislas de Toldi, co-founder and CEO.

Unlike many other robots, which can cost up to $10,000, Leka's Indiegogo campaign offers it at a low price point, $390, meant to entice parents, therapists, and educators to purchase it directly. "With Leka, there is finally a resource for parents who want to complement existing therapies and further foster family harmony between children and their parents, siblings and grandparents through play both at school and in-home," said de Toldi.

According to the press release, Leka will initially feature three applications:

1. Picture Bingo: When playing Picture Bingo, Leka's screen will randomly display a picture of an object and request that the child brings the object to Leka. Paired with RFID tags, Leka senses when a child returns with the displayed object and reacts positively to reward the child for completing the task. This game engages and develops fine motor skills, space-time orientation, attention, and interaction. A timer can also be added to the game, encouraging children to complete daily tasks such as brushing their teeth.

2. Traveling Leka: When playing Traveling Leka, parents will place color patches, enabled with RFID tags, around the room. Leka will spin around, stop its attention on the child and light up a certain color. The child must then place Leka on the patch with the matching color to complete the task. Once the child finds the patch with the coordinating color, Leka will provide motivating feedback by laughing or lighting up.

3. Hide & Go Leka: To play Hide & Go Leka, a caregiver, parent, or sibling will hide Leka for the child to find. In order to find Leka, the child will follow sounds and vibrations that Leka gives off. When the child finds Leka, the robot will open its eyes and make sounds, lights and vibrations, or change its expression.

The final edition of Leka will include these other applications as well: Remote Control Leka, Time-Timer, Alarm Clock, and Night Light.

SEE: Enhancing Education Among High-Functioning Children with Autism using Data Mining (PDF download)

Not only does Leka aim to serve as a toy for children, it also hopes to collect information that can contribute to a fuller understanding of autism. It will have a cloud-based monitor with sensors that can send information back to the user, including how children handle the device, how much time they spend on the activities, and how quickly they react. The information can be used by anyone who wants to track the child's progress.

The campaign hopes to raise $60,000 and will be shipped in May 2017.

Still, while the toy aims to help children develop skills, not all therapists are on board. Leslie Chiaventone, a speech-language pathologist at the University of Louisville, told TechRepublic that she "rarely recommends any 'toys' to parents of young children with autism. 'People games,' such as tickle games, chase, peek-a-boo, etc. are considered the gold standard because they teach reciprocal play and encourage social reciprocity," Chiaventone said. "Most electronics are not replacements for face-to-face interactions to build functional language skills."

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About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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