Robotic seal gets patients' approval

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 October, 2013, 6:45pm
UPDATED : Friday, 11 October, 2013, 11:06pm

A cuddly baby harp seal is helping Hong Kong therapists treat elderly patients with dementia and depression.

It's not a real seal but a robot developed by a Japanese company as a safe alternative to animal therapy using live pets.

Paro, short for personal robot, has dozens of sensors that respond to touch, light, temperature and sound, and imitates the yelp of a baby harp seal. It is used at Sha Tin Hospital and at the Evangelical Lutheran Church Social Service Sha Tin Caring Centre.

Paro inventor Takanori Shibata said he chose the baby seal for its "attractive shape" - "like a big egg or rugby ball".

The Japanese scientist said he developed cat and dog robots, but testers were disappointed because they kept comparing them to the real things.

Jean Woo, project director of Cadenza, a Jockey Club initiative for seniors, said it was a "major improvement in care" for dementia patients, who need mental and physical stimulation.

Animal-assisted therapy with pets and other domesticated animals is used with the aim of improving a patient's social, emotional, or cognitive functioning.

But Shibata said robots were more convenient than animals because patients could be bitten, scratched or infected, while some homes did not allow pets.

Sha Tin Hospital was the first facility in Hong Kong to start using the HK$60,000 device, introducing it early this year.

The Lutheran centre followed three months ago. So far, Paro has helped 23 of its patients, 80 per cent of whom reported feeling happier after playing with it.

Video: How a robot seal can make you feel better