Robotic bears can monitor sick kids – MIT’s device packed with sensors

By Christopher Rowland, Globe Staff  |  July 31, 2006

SIGGRAPH 2006: From idea to image
It’s an academic conference. It’s a digital art exhibit. It’s drawing 25,000 people to Boston this week to see how emerging technologies are being used to educate, entertain, and study everything from the sea floor to the human body.

In the future, a sick child may hug a teddy bear, and the bear may respond with a nuzzle.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab have produced a huggable robot bear that can serve as a “medical communicator” — cuddling for comfort, sensing the strength of a child’s squeeze, or summoning a nurse if the child seems afraid or agitated.

The stuffed bear and its inner workings will be on display at SIGGRAPH 2006’s Emerging Technologies exhibition, which also features such futuristic medical innovations as a high-resolution heart surgery simulator and a “forehead retina system” that helps blind people “see” by sending impulses to their skin.

“It’s cutting-edge, leading-edge technology,” said Tom Craven, chairman of the exhibition. “People are really pursuing this to better interface between us and machine.”

MIT’s stuffed bear is packed with electronic sensors and “sensitive skin” technology that can distinguish between petting, tickling, scratching, slapping, and, of course, hugging. The bear can nuzzle in response to a human touch and will be fitted with audio and video equipment to provide nurses or parents with real-time monitoring information.

The idea for the bear came from pet therapy, in which patients interact with friendly animals to improve their mood and help them recover from illness faster, said Walter Dan Stiehl, a researcher at the MIT Media Lab who helped develop it and wrote it up for his master’s thesis.

“We decided to use robots as pet surrogates,” said Stiehl, as he and his team worked last week to put finishing touches on the latest prototype. “If a young child is scared, and hugging it very tightly and rocking it back and forth, we can sense that and prompt someone to come into the room.”

Stiehl tested the concept using prototype teddy bears with sick children, a nursing home, and a hospice center in Scotland, which is home to a public economic development agency that is among those supporting the project. The team also has received two Microsoft iCampus grants, which are awarded to MIT researchers, of $25,000 each.

Computer scientists in Denmark developed the open-heart surgery simulator. The program takes detailed images produced by magnetic resonance imaging and creates a three-dimensional image of an individual’s heart. Surgeons can rehearse the operation on the image, using interactive tools that link to the computer images, before they make a single cut in the patient.

“We hope the surgeons can do a more efficient operation by moving the decision-making to the time before the surgery,” said Thomas Sangild Sorensen , a scientist at the Center for Advanced Visualization and Interaction at the University of Aarhus, Denmark.

The simulator is not yet in use. The development team is working toward a series of tests that could show doctors that it reduces complications during surgery, Sorensen said. In the tests to take place in London, images of the hearts of 30 patients with cardiac disease will be used to create models.

A barrier to its use so far has been the time it takes to create the three-dimensional images from the MRI data. If that time could be reduced from the current six hours or so to 15 minutes, he said, the system might become popular.

“We hope to make something that will at least inspire new tools to be built,” Sorensen said. “Some type of 3D modeling tool should be in place in all places that do cardiac surgery. It can help them significantly when they plan the procedure.”

The artificial retina system uses a pair of eyeglasses with a built-in camera, developed at the University of Tokyo. The camera collects images of the view ahead of the subject, and the outline of objects ahead is applied as a series of impulses transmitted via 512 electrodes to the skin of the forehead. The wearer looks like an NBA basketball player with a forehead sweatband.

The system is intended for people with visual impairments. Its developers said the device will be perfected for a blind marathon runner who is participating in the 2008 Beijing Paralympic games.

“It looks like you’re wearing a scarf,” said Craven, the chairman of SIGGRAPH 2006. “For people with sight, it’s like a third eye. You could even see behind you.”

Christopher Rowland can be reached at crowland@globe.com.  

© Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company