Interbots, a spin-off of Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center, has developed a new robotic toy called Popchilla that will be used to study autism. Children with autism will play with it, and hopefully respond to the robot’s “emotions”, which are communicated through a mix of gesture, expression, and voice. The robot’s ears and paws can move, its eyes change from a friendly green to an angry red, and its mouth opens and closes when it sings. A 1o week trial will be conducted this fall at the Autism Center of Pittsburgh in McCandless.
“Kids with autism have difficulty recognizing emotions … in others or themselves. They get mad because they don’t know what they’re feeling. Popchilla is there to facilitate communication, and for some kids any communication is good communication. I have two autistic children of my own … They’re enamored of computer animations. They’re drawn to cartoons. They’d much rather watch cartoons than interact with humans.We have tested many different children, all with different levels of severity of autism. In all the cases, the interest in the robot was piqued, whereas interest in a therapist or a peer was unremarkable. In one case, we had a child who was basically nonverbal pick up a spoon and ‘feed’ Popchilla. Another responded by following along with a song or two.” said Cindy Waeltermann, founder and director of the Autism Center of Pittsburgh.