A New Force: Hartford Firm's Robotics System Helps Children Manage Autism
By RICHARD MESSINA
April 13, 2012
Timothy Gifford isn't looking to cure childhood autism. But he does want to improve the quality of life for children who struggle with it.
Movia Robotics LLC, which Gifford founded in 2011, integrates systems in the field of robotics, particularly in the fields of education and therapy.
"Our system is a combination of the hardware and software," says Gifford, CEO of the Hartford-based company. The system provides an interactive experience that teachers and clinicians can use to help autistic children learn and practice basic interaction skills.
"It can be used as a training tool for children with autism to help them interact with the real world," Gifford says.
Movia's multifaceted computer program enables a robot to use information from external sensors in a room to provide social cues to a child. The robots that Movia uses in its system are manufactured by a company in France and are built to resemble the human form, complete with face and articulated arms and legs.
The robot communicates with a child through voice commands and movement.
People love robots, and children are particularly fascinated by them, Gifford says. Because the robot is predictable and works on a simpler level than humans, he says, children can feel more at ease working with them than with adults.
Through repetition of the cues provided by the robot, a child learns appropriate responses to social situations and then "generalize that into interactions with people," Gifford says.
Gifford, director of the Advanced Interactive Technology Center in the University of Connecticut's Center for Health, Intervention, and Prevention, says multiple departments at UConn are working on the research, including computer science, psychology and the Neag School of Education.
The research is funded through a grant that UConn received from the National Institutes of Health. Movia has licensed the robotics system's application from UConn.
Gifford's company is working to make the robotic and software system easy to use while also developing curriculum and activities to support the robot system's interactions with the kids, he says.
With its robotics system currently in pilot testing, Movia is seeking second-stage funding to commercialize and market the system to schools, therapists and independent clinics by 2013.
Gifford, of Hartford, saw a connection to robotics when his wife, a teacher, told him that there were few tools available to teach autistic children in the classroom.
"We're trying to improve their quality of life by giving them basic skills," he says, "and through these skills giving them a way to better interact in the world with kids and adults."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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