This robot helps children with visual impairment chat with others

A new accessibility-focused robot under development will allow children of mixed visual abilities to have balanced conversations. The goal is to promote moments where everyone participates equally.

Researchers at the Interactive Technologies Institute have recently released a study on using a robot to mediate group discussions between children with mixed-visual abilities. The team presented the study during the ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction held this March in Stockholm.

The research team identified the problem of children with disabilities participating less in group discussions. They believe it’s due to the lack of technologies that fit the needs of children with and without visual impairment. “Most accessible technologies are developed to be used only by children with disabilities, which excludes them from many classroom activities. Additionally, children with visual impairment have more challenges perceiving conversation and related non-verbal cues”, explains Isabel Neto, the leading researcher and PhD candidate at Instituto Superior Técnico.

Developing a conversation-moderating robot

To solve this issue, the researchers adapted a commercially-available robotic toy – Dash – that mediates group discussions between mixed-visual abilities children. The robot moves between the children and stays in front of the currently speaking child as a listening buddy while using microphones to understand how much each child has talked. The robot changes its position and goes to the child that spoke less in the group to encourage her to intervene. Dash uses bright, colourful LEDs and verbal utterances to communicate conversation engagement or encourage participation. “We created the robot’s behaviours through software development, specifically designed to be used by mixed-abilities children. Any child perceives its behaviours, regardless of their visual acuity”, clarifies the researcher.

The study performed with groups of children aimed to test if the robot intervention would promote equal participation of children with and without visual impairment in group conversations. “We were interested in assessing how balanced the group participation would be. We considered a group balanced whenever children spoke fairly for the same amount of time. On the other hand, we considered unbalanced the groups in which at least one child spoke significantly more or less than the others”, clarifies Isabel Nspeaking

Dash encourages children with visual impairment to speak more

The study showed that the robot reduced the discrepancy between how much children with and without visual impairment participated. The team reached these results by using what they called a directive strategy. In this case, the robot moves near the least participating child, encouraging them to talk. “Although it did not fully eliminate discrepancies, the robot did reduce this unevenness. This is a small yet promising step towards fairer participation of all children in classroom activities”, concludes the researcher.

This research highlights the benefits of creating inclusive technologies that anyone can use, promoting fair and equitable experiences. In the future, the research team will perfect the directive strategy to make it feel more organic and natural. “We also want to expand our audiences and explore how we could use a robot on other mixed-ability groups, such as children in the autism spectrum,” she reveals. The researchers hope their findings will positively influence group dynamics in classrooms, workplaces, and homes.