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Ollie the Baby Otter Is a Therapy Robot That's Actually Affordable

This MIT project developed a cuddly therapy robot that could sell for just $500

2 min read
Ollie the Baby Otter Is a Therapy Robot That's Actually Affordable
Otterly adorable!
Image: MIT/Course 2.009

In MIT’s course 2.009 (“Product Engineering Processes”), teams of undergrads have to come up with an idea for a product, figure out if it can be commercially successful, make a prototype, and then wrap everything up with a pitch presentation at the end. In 2013, one of the teams decided to make a therapy robot to help with anxiety and depression in dementia patients. It’s a cute little otter, and its name is Ollie.

Ollie (you can watch the pitch presentation here) was designed based on studies showing that animals can have a significant positive impact on people with dementia, which includes one out of every three seniors. Animal-assisted therapy can help reduce stress and agitation, minimize feelings of isolation, and give people something to touch, and be touched by.

Despite how helpful they can be, live animals obviously aren’t the right choice for all seniors. Robots, on the other hand, have the potential to provide the same benefits with accessibility to anyone who needs a companion. Paro is probably the most well known of these therapeutic robots; the robotic baby seal from Japan has been around since around 2004, and has been clinically shown to improve both quality of life and brain function.

Paro is great, except for one thing: it costs US $6,000, making it far too expensive for most people to afford. This is where Ollie comes in: the Ollie prototype cost just $500 to build, and the MIT students estimated that, with enough volume, the robot could be manufactured for under $100.

Ollie has sensors that can understand how users interact with it through touch, and respond in pleasant, soothing ways with sound and movement and purring. It’s about the size of a baby to engender an instinct for humans to care for it, with a large tummy just begging for snuggles. Ollie is an otter because humans know that otters are cute and familiar, but generally, we don’t know enough about otters for anything about Ollie to be obviously unnatural. This line of thinking, incidentally, is why Paro is a harp seal instead of a cat and Pleo is a dinosar instead of a dog.

imgImage: MIT/Course 2.009

Inside, Ollie is powered by a Raspberry Pi, along with a custom motor and sensor board and some clever silicone arms actuated by wires. From the begining Ollie was designed to be handled and loved, so it’s very durable: its fur coat can be removed for cleaning, and underneath is a waterproof covering in case of spills.

We have no idea what, if anything, happened to Ollie, but we’ve emailed members of the MIT team that invented him to see if they have plans to commercialize it, or perhaps license the design to a manufacturer. We’ll update this post if we hear back.

[ Ollie ]

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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