Romo's Potential for Autism

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Article first published as Romo's Potential for Autism on Technorati.

Romo with a confused look, courtesy

Often I have written about mobile applications and their impact on children with autism. Some have been pretty basic, some have been very useful, and some have been just plain fun. All of them have been smartphone or tablet related, which highlights the usefulness of this new medium in helping children on the spectrum.

But something I saw this morning, at least in my mind, has the potential to trump them all. The good folks at Romotive in Las Vegas, NV have developed a robot, Romo, that uses an iPhone 4S/4/3GS or iPod Touch 4th Generation, an app, and a mobile base. With this combination, they have created a whole new ecosystem based on behaviors and interactions that make Romo a great "pet". The BusinessInsider video played to using it as a toy, but I saw something more in that expressive face.

But here is the thing: studies have suggested that children with autism find it easier to interact with a robot than with a human person. This one from Pragmatics and Cognition evaluates the successes of the Aurora project, using autonomous mobile robots as therapeutic tools for children with autism.

Recent studies such as those outlined in this survey have shown that robots are being welcomed as an interaction tool, but it's still too young a technology to see effects over the long term. Still, short term results are encouraging.

The conclusion was one of hope, but realistically lowering expectations that any one device can be a universal device to help children on the spectrum. This is mostly because autism runs across to many demographics in so many areas it's difficult to develop a platform that can meet all your needs.

Robots have been developed to follow these paths, such as Bandit, Keepon, and KASPAR all have focused on those study findings, and built robots to help kids interact and learn emotions. They have been great, but they also tend to be pricey and limited to the proprietary code developed for that robot. Great for a large budget, not practical for the family at home or an underfunded school district.

But mobile applications have proven that one device category, the mobile device (iOS, Android, Windows Phone, or WebOS) with a clear development SDK can provide an ecosystem with variety. At my last count there were over 2,000 apps for iOS and over 1,000 apps for Android that focus specifically on autism. The Aurora project was conducted in 2004, before this interactive, prolific environment had been introduced.

And now, with the introduction of Romo, we have integrated this new platform into an autonomous robot that is (relatively) inexpensive, and very open. Romo has it's own development SDK to allow development of new apps for Romo to use. The autism community, who have already been diligent in developing apps for mobile devices, now have a new dimension to their development: an interactive, personal robot.

There are a lot of other possible applications for the Robot that I can see (recall the personal presence device from Big Bang Theory and the Verizon commercial?), but this one makes me really excited. The price tag of $149.00 is reasonable for the device, but still a little pricey for a "toy", if viewed in that context. But if you see it as a way to interact with your child on the spectrum without having them look away, it just might be worth it.

If there is anyone out there that has a Romo or robot device that they use for their child with autism, please let us all know what works and what doesn't work. I'm sure we would all be interested in hearing details.