Researchers developing robot to help kids with autism socialize

The engineers in Virginia are in the early stages of studying how their robot uses facial recognition to detect expressions and provide positive feedback

Virginia researchers developing robot to help kids with autism
Courtesy: WAVY

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – His name is NOA — pronounced “now” — and he may be the future of autism intervention.

The humanoid robot is part of a two-pronged research initiative aimed at helping kids with autism better socialize and communicate. It uses facial recognition to detect expressions and games that could one day provide the positive feedback and practice some people need to improve social interactions.

Dr. Khan Iftekharuddin, a professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia and the chair of electrical and computer engineering, is inspired by his nephew, who lives with autism.

“If there’s anything I can do, I should do,” he said.

It’s Khan’s drive to help his nephew and others that led to the two-part study.

The first part of the study uses web cameras to detect facial expressions. The computer deciphers these expressions of normally developing kids. It also detects the lack of expression on the face of a child with autism.

“And then the computer automatically tells us if this child is happy or sad,” Khan said.

The idea is to use this information to develop interventions and, possibly, games. They’ve already come up with a version of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” that kids can play with the robot.

“A platform like this could be in a clinicians’ setting where these kids can spend time,” Khan said.

The research is in its early stages but experts already know kids with autism are visually oriented and practice helps them learn. These researchers are hopeful their robot may one day change lives.

Khan and his team are working with Eastern Virginia Medical School on the research. He said if all goes well, it could be available in five years or more.


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