RoboBusiness: Keepon dancing robot's place in autism therapy

Among the attractions at RoboBusiness last week was Keepon, a little yellow puffball robot. I had the opportunity to speak with Marek Michalowski, one of Keepon's developers, about the robot's place in autism therapy and its totally sweet dance moves.

Keepon, originally developed by Hideki Kozima, is a "BeatBot." The little robot was made famous by a Wired music video showing it dancing -- and indeed, a lot of Michalowski's work has involved teaching Keepon to respond to musical beats. But believe it or not, Keepon was actually originally developed for autism therapy.

It's a relatively simple robot: a few motors controlling degrees of freedom, a microphone, and two cameras in the eyes. When used for therapy, Keepon is remotely controlled by a therapist in another room using a standard laptop keyboard while the camera feed plays on the computer screen. It doesn't speak, can't manipulate objects, and never even changes facial expression, and yet it's shown a lot of promise in helping autistic children develop emotional responses.


A demonstration of Keepon for the History Channel, showing off Keepon's guts and how it can interact with kids

Michalowski said that in a typical autism therapy session, therapists are trying to teach children to respond to them emotionally. The therapist often has a lot of difficulty with getting the kids to establish and maintain eye contact, establish any physical contact, or express any emotional identification. With Keepon, the therapist stays outside the room, and Keepon is their only representative. The robot is placed in the room with the kids while the therapist remotely controls it; they can have Keepon look around at different kids and control its motion in a way that suggest a physical response (for example, when I poked Keepon's side, Michalowski managed to make it look like Keepon was responding to something ticklish).

What they've found with Keepon is that the kids do actually start responding to it. They'll maintain eye contact with it, which the therapist can observe through the video feed to the control computer. Some start petting it. Some autistic kids have a tendency to repeat certain motions or actions over and over; if the therapist starts matching the beat of that motion with Keepon bouncing or dancing, these kids often notice, and start changing up their frequency to make it into a game, watching Keepon keep up with them and breaking in to smiles and laughter as they watch the little robot.

The irony in all this, says Michalowski, is that people at times describe severely autistic people as "robotic" -- not expressive, not emotionally empathetic, and sometimes painfully literal -- yet it takes a robot to bring out the expressiveness and emotion in these children.

Michalowski and Kozima have started a company called BeatBots LLC to commercialize Keepon and its eventual brethren. While the primary application is of course autism and other behavioral therapies, they're not unaware that many people would love a cute little dancing robot of their own. Right now they're trying to develop a low-cost version -- the research platform currently uses precision motors and expensive high-def cameras -- that they hope will gain popularity.

Michalowski has a set of great Keepon music videos on his YouTube channel, and you should also check out the video of Keepon on the Today Show as part of a series on how robots may help advance autism therapy.

Previously:

Keepon dancing

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