A Talking Teddy Bear Practicing in the Pediatric Hospital

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By Emma Cott

Can a robotic teddy bear help alleviate anxiety, pain and isolation for children in a hospital?

That is the hope of Dr. Peter Weinstock, the director of a training program at Boston Children’s Hospital called the Simulator Program, and Cynthia Breazeal, the director of the personal robots group at M.I.T.’s Media Lab. The two have collaborated to bring Huggable, a social robot prototype developed at the lab, into the hospital, which is financing a 90-person study to determine whether the robot can have therapeutic value for children who have to endure long hospital stays.

The device, essentially a high-tech puppet, can talk and play with patients with the aid of a remote operator. For the continuing study, one-third of the children play with Huggable, another third interact with an image of it on a tablet and the rest are given a regular plush teddy bear. All the children are recorded on video and wear a bracelet, called a Q Sensor, that measures physiological changes.

The hospital is beginning to collect and analyze the data with the help of researchers from Northeastern University. Dr. Weinstock hopes the study will help doctors better understand children’s emotional states, something he has referred to as the fourth vital sign. “We think a lot about heart rate,blood pressure and how much oxygen is in the blood, but we don’t have a great monitor for how the child is feeling right now,” he said. “What we do know is that children who are happier, who feel better, it can have a big effect on healing.”

Boston Children’s has invested $500,000 in social robotics research, including the Huggable study, according to the hospital.

For her part, Dr. Breazeal said she wanted to work toward making Huggable capable of operating autonomously, without the aid of a puppeteer. The robot could be a soothing distraction and simultaneously capture data and information from patients, which would be fed to hospital staff, improving the continuity of care.

“We could someday see this as a standard of care, where every child who comes into the pediatric hospital might get something like this,” Dr. Breazeal said. “It’s not only the health and emotional and recovery benefits, but also logistical and financial, improving efficiency to the overall health system.” — Emma Cott

 

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