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PC World

Pet robots considered therapy for elderly


March 25, 1999
Web posted at: 12:24 p.m. EST (1724 GMT)

by Michael Drexler

(IDG) -- Matsushita Electric announced its entry into the "pet" robot market on Wednesday with Tama, a robotic cat designed to be a conversation partner for elderly people.

Unlike other robotic pets, like Tiger Electronic's Furby or Sony's Entertainment Robot, the catlike Tama will have more than just entertainment value, offering companionship and a variety of other services to the aged, said Matsushita.

"The idea [behind Tama] is animal therapy," said Kuniichi Ozawa, General Manager of Matsushita Electric's Health and Medical Business Promotion Office. "A network system will enable the pets to speak to the elderly in natural way, especially to people who are living alone, and this will make them more comfortable."

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Tama can be connected via cell phone or ISDN line to a network system center, allowing health or social workers to send local news, medical information, and encouraging messages to elderly people.

A cat with chat

Tama is endowed with 50 phrases, ranging from the light-hearted ("Today is the karaoke party. Let's sing a lot.") to more practical information ("Today is Wednesday. It is your day to go to the hospital."). Workers at a network system center can upload a message into an elderly person's pet and then determine when Tama will say it.

The centers will also be able to monitor elderly people's interaction with the robot, potentially allowing a health or social worker to spot dangerous or suspicious trends in someone's behavior, said Matsushita.

"Tama is basically supposed to be a conversation partner for the elderly," explained Kenji Mizutani, an engineer for Matsushita. "But, for instance, if the pet starts talking and there is no response for a long time, the center might conclude that there is something amiss," and could conceivably call the person or notify a health worker.

Matsushita, which along with an organization called Japan's Association for Technical Aids, spent three years and around $2 million to develop Tama. The company hopes to begin selling the robot sometime after the year 2001 and expects Tama to retail in Japan for around $500.

The foot-tall Tama weighs 3 pounds and will eventually be incarnated in a variety of animal shapes.

Purrfect agents at work

In order for the robot to perform its caretaker/companion role, Tama sports some spiffy new technology beneath its tawny coat. Primary among this is Matushita's so-called "autonomous agent" technology, which lets Tama predict when it should become active and engage in conversation, using a built in clock and 2MB of memory to record past interactions.

The robot's expressions and movements are controlled by "multimodal dialog" technology, which coordinates Tama's speech, facial expressions, and hand, leg, and ear motions. Microphones in its ears and a sensor in its head let Tama respond to questions, comments, and scratches behind the ears.

"Tama doesn't move around, though," said Ozawa. "A group of elderly people we surveyed said they didn't want to get tired out chasing a robot all over the house."

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