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A team of engineers at the University of Denver led by professor Mohammad Mahoor is developing a socially assistive robot called Ryan that provides companionship to seniors with dementia and/or depression.
There is emerging research in the field of robotics that aims to use social robots to engage effectively in social and conversational interaction with seniors with dementia to improve their socio-emotional behaviors, cognitive functions, and well-being.
Dementia is an overall term for diseases that deteriorate individuals’ memory and other mental skills. Dementia can significantly reduce elderly individuals’ ability to live independently and safely in their homes. Associated with the decline in cognitive abilities, depression is often one of the symptoms of dementia. Due to dementia and the rapid aging of the population, nursing homes have been facing a challenge to provide care.
The University of Denver partnered with DreamFace Technologies to develop a social robot, called Ryan, for this purpose. Ryan is a lifelike social robot with the capability of showing facial expressions, visual speech, emotion recognition, subject movement tracking and eye gaze. She can maintain a spoken dialogue and is designed for face-to-face communication with individuals in different social and therapeutic contexts.
One of the key features of the robot is its animated face. The face uses a patented rear-projection system that allows her to change her appearance to appeal to the users and be more expressive. Also, the animated face helps easily sync her “lips” to her voice, which is important for understanding her.
Another interesting feature of Ryan is her ability to recognize a user’s emotions through artificial intelligence. This ability allows her to understand the user’s mood and react appropriately. Combining this ability with her expressive face gives her a sense of empathy and helps create a stronger bond with the user.
Ryan is not just a pretty face, though. Users can have meaningful conversations with her too. Unlike Amazon Alexa or Google Home, she is not an assistant, but a companion. Ryan is proactive, she does not only answer your questions, she can start a conversation about anything and keep the user engaged.
The robot is also equipped with a screen on its torso with features such as cognitive games, a music player, narrated photo albums and a video player. It even reminds the users to take their medicine on time and stay on schedule.
A pilot study has been conducted with 12 seniors to demonstrate the feasibility of using Ryan to improve their quality of life with moderate dementia and/or depression over a four-week period. Overall, the seniors felt the robot helped them maintain their schedule, improved their mood, and stimulated them mentally. The common sentiment among users after the pilot study was best described by one user’s comment, “She (Ryan) was just enjoyable. We were sad to see her go.” Looking toward the future, the second version of Ryan is already being developed with new features to further improve seniors’ quality of life.
This column is hosted by the Seniors’ Council of Douglas County. Please join us May 2 at the Douglas County Event Center in Castle Rock for our day-long educational event, Vintage & Vibrant: Exploring the Latest Trends in Living and Aging Well. This exciting event includes three keynote speakers, numerous interactive breakout sessions, morning and afternoon refreshments, as well as lunch and door prizes. A $5 registration fee covers it all. Attendees will also have an opportunity to meet Ryan and Dr. Mohammad H. Mahoor. For more information and to register, visit: www.douglas.co.us/community/senior-adult-services/seniors-council-2/vintage-vibrant.
Dr. Mohammad H. Mahoor is an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Denver. He received his Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Miami. For additional information, email Mohammad.Mahoor@du.edu.
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