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Arlington Developers Hope Their Robot Helps Autistic Kids

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ARLINGTON (CBSDFW.COM) –  With autism now at what some experts call “epidemic” levels, some North Texas entrepreneurs say technology is the key to making treatment more affordable and therefore available to more families.

But, the creative minds at Arlington-based Hanson Robokind aren’t just writing software; they’ve created a new platform to deliver computer based lessons: His name is ‘Zeno’, a 27-inch life like talking robot.

To the amazement of onlookers at the CBS 11 studios, ‘Zeno’ enters his spiel: “I am the latest technology in autism therapy from Hanson Robokind. I have a wide range of expressions … I can also connect to the internet and send videos and summaries of each session to the parents and doctors to help evaluate learning and development.”

Zeno, a $16,000 humanoid robot is a prototype set for mass production this summer. Its North Texas creators hope it will be a game-changer in the world of treatment for mid and higher functioning autistic kids.

Fred Margolin, Hanson Robokind CEO says Zeno is “going to  revolutionize the amount of treatment kids can get and also the quality of the treatment and also by the way, how the kids are going to feel about the treatment. They’re not going to feel pressure or put on or anything like that because they’re going to have fun with the robot.”

Experts at the Autism Treatment Center of Dallas have already been amazed at the impact.

“We took the robot over to work with two mid to lower spectrum kids who had not been talking whatsoever to staff and in ten minutes the kids started talking to the robots, the staff was teared up and crying,” says Margolin.

One theory, says Margolin, is that children find robots less threatening and infinitely patient in situations where repetition is critical to learning. Hi-definition cameras in Zeno’s eyes allow therapists to monitor sessions remotely.

Another key factor in Zeno’s ability to connect with autistic kids is how eerily he mimics human expressions. The robot’s soft, flexible, life-like skin– created from a product the firm patented called ‘frubber’– allows him to smile, frown, and even register disappointment.

“A lot of the therapies that are involved with some of these kids have to do with mimicking things that are appropriate,” says Margolin.  “So the robot may say to them, tell me when you think I’m sad, tell me when you think I’m happy, tell me when you think I’m mad at you, tell me when you think I’m disappointed … and the kid will work on it and it’s all based on the ability of the robot to have expressions.”

Margolin says a team of world renowned autism specialists are creating lessons plans –– called modules –– for the line of robots.  The ever-changing software is expected to keep interest in the robots high, with its creators arguing that the modules will make the robot less an object of fascination, and will instead simply become a platform for delivering the information.

The mass produced versions will also have modifications that will make them more affordable.  Less emphasis, and therefore expense, will be dedicated to having the robot’s body move.  But, nine distinct motors in the face will make the mass produced versions even more lifelike.

The versions set to roll off assembly lines this summer are expected to cost between $3,000-$5,000.  Still, Margolin believes that the treatment platform will be a bargain for parents who often spend upwards of $25,000 a year on specialized treatment for a disease that has no cure.

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