Robotic Pets

For some older populations, having a pet is not possible. Perhaps they can not care for an animal or their retirement community doesn’t allow it. Robotic companions have entered the market to fill that void, and one University of Cincinnati professor is re-imagining these high-tech pets to not only provide companionship, but care.

Claudia Rebola is an associate professor and graduate studies coordinator in UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning. Together with graduate students from DAAP and UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science; but Rebola is giving an existing line of robotic pets; but a makeover inside and out so they look and feel more realistic and offer expanded capabilities, like checking a user’s vital signs.

Rebola’s work combines design, science and technology to create innovative, interactive health products. Innovation is a cornerstone of UC’s strategic direction, Next Lives Here. Rebola also is an expert on aging and researches disabilities, health, technologies; robotics and applying accessible design, from wearables to user experiences, tailored to the older adult population.

Interactive health products

In 2017, while working at Rhode Island School of Design, Rebola wrote a grant for a project called ARIES; or Affordable Robotic Intelligence for Elderly Support with researchers from Brown University; and Butler Hospital and industry partner Hasbro, one of the largest toy-makers in the world. The team received a $1 million National Science Foundation grant to re-envision an acquired Hasbro brand; Joy For All Companion Pets, purchased by a new company, Ageless Innovation, created by former Hasbro executives. On the market since 2015, these robotic cats and dogs feature simple, toylike designs; sounds and movements to provide comfort, companionship and fun for elderly users.

Rebola’s team is setting out to re-imagine the pets from appearance to function; creating the next-generation robotic intelligence that provides psycho-social support for older adults. Working collaboratively with industrial design and engineering graduate students; Rebola focuses on human factors, such as “understanding the user, their needs and how to translate those needs into unique design opportunities for these pets,” she says.

Older adults and their caretakers

Part of that research involves pilot studies and focus groups with older adults; but and their caretakers in the community to get feedback on the robots to better improve the design. Cincinnati area communities, including Scarlet Oaks Retirement Community and Episcopal Retirement Services, are currently participating in a longitudinal study of the existing robotic pets, and Rebola has recruited members from UC’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) to evaluate their new ideas along the way.

Feedback from these sessions led the class to concentrate on redesigning the robot dog, which resembled a cartoonish yellow stuffed animal and had the most room for improvement. They found that users wanted a dog with more realistic features from its fur to movements, so they modeled the new prototype after the Yorkshire terrier one of the most popular breeds among older adults they discovered. Rebola hopes that in the future buyers can order custom breeds and colors to perhaps resemble a pet they used to have.