A UK healthcare centre has introduced an interactive robotic seal to help dementia sufferers better communicate and interact.
Taking advantage of the same principles as animal therapy, the seal, originally developed by engineers at Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, can help patients in environments where animals are not permitted, such as healthcare facilities that require very high standards of cleanliness.
Staff at the Sheffield Health and Social Care NHS Foundation Trust have recently undergone training using the technology, which has already been employed in many countries around the world.
"PARO helps calm and relax service users and can distract and reassure them if they are distressed by situations such as having their blood taken or being assisted with self-care,” said occupational therapist Claire Jepson.
"The seal is not intended to replace human contact and interaction, but rather to complement and enhance it. It is not just a stuffed toy, it is much more sophisticated and interactive than that, and it is fascinating to see how people engage with it.”
The robot, equipped with tactile sensors, responds to touch and sounds. When stroked it moves its head and body and opens and closes its eyes. It can also show emotions such as happiness and surprise, and call for attention when not being caressed.
"Touch is a basic human need and PARO's shape and size means it can fit against people's torsos comfortably - so it is like a portable hug,” Jepson said.
"There is huge potential for PARO to benefit a lot of people. We have witnessed this and it is truly humbling."
The robot also knows when it is time to rest and will fall asleep to encourage the patient to settle.