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Interacting with a robotic teddy bear invented at MIT boosted young patients’ positive emotions, engagement, and activity level.

Cuddly toy robots could help reduce anxiety in hospitalised children

Image credit: Courtesy of the Personal Robots Group, MIT Media Lab

A new study by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has indicated that a ‘social robot’ can be used in support sessions to help reduce sick children’s anxiety, pain and other distress while in a hospital setting.

Collaborating with Northeastern University, researchers from MIT Media Lab deployed a robotic teddy bear, called Huggable (pictured above), across several paediatric units at Boston Children’s Hospital.

As part of the study, 54 hospitalised children were randomly split into three groups of interventions that involved Huggable, a tablet-based virtual Huggable, or a traditional plush teddy bear.

During the interventions involving the robotic teddy bear and the 54 children aged between three and 10 years old, a specialist sang nursery rhymes to the younger children through the robot and moved its arms during the song.

Furthermore, the older children who participated in the study played the I Spy game, where they have to guess an object in the room described by the specialist through Huggable. 

According to the results from the study, a greater percentage of children and their parents reported that the children enjoyed playing with Huggable more than with the avatar or traditional teddy bear.

Speech analysis backed up that result, detecting significantly more joyful expressions among the children during robotic interventions. Additionally, parents noted lower levels of perceived pain among their children.

According to the researchers, the young patients got out of bed and moved around more and emotionally connected with the robot, asking it personal questions and inviting it to come back later to meet their families.

The study primarily demonstrated the feasibility of integrating a robotic cuddly toy into interventions taking place in these environments. However, results also indicated that children playing with Huggable experienced more positive emotions overall.

“Such improved emotional, physical and verbal outcomes are all positive factors that could contribute to better and faster recovery in hospitalised children,” the researchers wrote in their study.

The researchers also said that although it was a small study, it was the first to explore social robotics in a real-world in-patient paediatric setting with ill children, comparing it to other studies that have been conducted in labs, have studied very few children, or were conducted in public settings without any patient identification.

However, the researchers have stressed that Huggable is only designed to assist healthcare specialists rather than to replace them. “It’s a companion,” said Cynthia Breazeal, an associate professor of media arts and sciences and founding director of the Personal Robots group.

“Our group designs technologies with the mindset that they’re teammates,” she added. “We don’t just look at the child-robot interaction. It’s about [helping] specialists and parents, because we want technology to support everyone who’s invested in the quality care of a child.”

Many hospitals in the US host interventions in paediatric units, where child life specialists will provide clinical interventions to hospitalised children for developmental and coping support.

Such interventions very often involve play, preparation, education and behavioural distraction for routine medical care, as well as before, during and after difficult procedures.

Deirdre Logan, a paediatric psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, also said: “Child life staff provide a lot of human interaction to help normalise the hospital experience, but they can’t be with every kid, all the time. Social robots create a more consistent presence throughout the day.”

Traditional interventions in a children’s hospital environment include therapeutic medical play and normalising the environment through activities such as arts and crafts, games and celebrations. However, Logan stressed how this was not the case for every ill child.

“There may also be kids who don’t always want to talk to people and respond better to having a robotic stuffed animal with them,” Logan added.

“It’s exciting knowing what types of support we can provide kids who may feel isolated or scared about what they’re going through.”

First prototyped in 2006, Huggable is a plush teddy bear with a screen depicting animated eyes that is currently operated remotely by a specialist in the hall outside a child’s room. However, the researchers have expressed that their eventual goal is to make the teddy bear robot fully autonomous.

Through custom software, the specialist can also control the robot’s facial expressions and body gestures as well as direct its gaze.

The specialists could also talk through a speaker – with their voice automatically shifted to a higher pitch to sound more child-like – and monitor the participants via camera feed. The tablet-based avatar of the bear had identical gestures and was also remotely operated.

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