Could a robot dog help people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia?
American entrepreneur Tom Stevens thinks so. He recently presented a test version of a yellow Labrador puppy to residents of a nursing home in the American state of California.
To develop the device, Stevens’ company Tombot worked with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, a company established by the famous creator of the Muppets.
“It didn’t just have to look real and feel realistic but it had to behave realistically as well,” Stevens said about the robot puppy.
Stevens believes the Tombot dog, which moves its head from side to side and wags its tail, can help people with dementia. It also is easier to care for than a real dog, he said.
The robot has 16 motors to control its movements and has sensors that cause it to respond to voice commands and detect how people are touching it.
Stevens said he came up with the idea for the robot after his mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2011.
“Of the many bad days that we had early on, by far the worst was when I had to take away her dog,” Stevens said.
Stevens had a background in investing in robotics and he wondered whether the technology could help people like his mother.
His test version has the name “Jenny.” The puppy cannot walk and is carried on a small bed.
At the Sage Mountain nursing home in Thousand Oaks, where many residents suffer from dementia and other memory-related illnesses, petting the robot put smiles on people’s faces during a visit last month. Jenny has visited the facility a number of times.
“The dog is very interactive, the tail wagging, responding to them calling her name,” said Caroline Gibson, a spokeswoman for the nursing home. She added that it was “really amazing” to see the nursing home’s residents feel at ease.
Tombot plans to have its first commercial sales of its robot dogs in 2020. It will enter a robot dog market that includes Sony’s Aibo, among others.
P&S Market Research estimates that the market for personal robots may reach over $30 billion by 2022.