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University professors, Hasbro Inc. to collaborate on creating robotic pets

Project will advance current Hasbro line of realistic pets to help elderly with daily tasks

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, November 9, 2017

One of Hasbro’s priorities was making the toy pets look and act as realistic as possible, including tapered whiskers, purring and randomized responses to petting. The animatronics currently sell for around $100.

Hasbro, the Pawtucket-based maker of beloved classics such as Monopoly and Play-Doh, will be collaborating with the University’s Humanity Centered Robotics Initiative to advance realistic robotic pet assistants for the elderly.

The collaboration between the third largest toy-maker in the world and University researchers will build on Hasbro’s current line of animatronic dogs and cats, Joy for All Companion Pets. While the current pets provide comfort and companionship through purring and simple responses to petting, the upcoming project will program them to help with tasks such as finding lost items or remembering to take medication.

Funded by a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the project, called Affordable Robotic Intelligence for Elderly Support, aims to not only add more capabilities to the pets, but also make them more economical. Currently many robotic pet products, such as the popular PARO seal from Japan, can cost as much as $5,000-6,000, said Michael Littman, co-principal investigator on the grant and professor of computer science. By collaborating with Hasbro, whose Joy for All Companion Pets cost around $100, the team hopes to develop an affordable product.

Moving an elderly person into a hospital can be a financial burden, Littman said. Going to the hospital may also make problems worse by exposing the elderly to a number of illnesses floating around, he added.

“We’re motivated by this question of what can we do to help people in their home environments?” Littman said. “It’s absolutely essential that we find ways to get people the services that they need.”

In looking back at trend information, Hasbro found that a particular brand of toy aimed at younger children was actually more often being purchased to help an elderly loved one, said Ted Fischer, vice president for business development at Hasbro. After exploring this concept by working with seniors and communities in assisted living, they found that the lack of play in these communities allowed isolation and loneliness to persist.

“We really do believe in ‘Creating the World’s Best Play Experiences’ — our tagline — and I don’t think that there should be an age limit on this,” Fischer said.

One of the main priorities in the toys’ development has been making them as realistic as possible, whether it be in appearance, feel or response to actions. For example, the designers and animatronic engineers paid close attention to making the kitten have tapered rather than straight whiskers, a vibrational purr and randomized responses to petting, just like a real kitten would.

Hasbro has decades of animatronics experiences, but working with Brown will bring in more cognitive and computer science expertise. The group will perform research and studies with senior citizens to better understand their needs and figure out what the research can do to help them the most, said Bertram Malle, co-director of the Humanity Centered Robotics Initiative and professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences.

“If you live on your own, there may be no way to even find your glasses, and asking someone to help can be an emotional burden,” Malle said. With these new pets, users may be able to ask, ‘Where are my glasses?’ and be guided to a misplaced object through nudges and sounds.

Both parties said the opportunity to combine their various areas of expertise within the Rhode Island community to create an impactful product is extremely exciting.

“As a computer scientist, I’m getting to interact with behavioral scientists and clinicians and toy engineers that really care about how our design can touch people’s lives,” Littman said. “We want to make a product that makes a difference.”

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