Emma the robotic masseuse launched at traditional Chinese medicine clinic

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Emma, short for Expert Manipulative Massage Automation, can massage a patient's back and knees.
Emma's robotic arm has soft silicon tips that are warmed to a temperature of between 38 deg C and 40 deg C to mimic human touch. ST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG

SINGAPORE - Patients stepping into NovaHealth Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) clinic at One Raffles Place can now expect to be served by Emma the robotic masseuse.

Short for Expert Manipulative Massage Automation, Emma consists of a robotic arm extending from a white machine that is able to dole out back and knee massages. It was officially launched on Monday (Oct 9) at the clinic's opening.

The robot was built by AiTreat, a start-up incubated by Nanyang Technological University, and was in the developmental phase for about two years.

Emma the robot executes massages through soft silicon tips that are warmed to a temperature of between 38 deg C and 40 deg C to mimic human touch.

The type of massage is prescribed by the physician following a consultation, and the robot uses a camera for calibration to accurately target the acupoint. The patient is allowed to vary the massage pressure through a handheld control.

The robot is also equipped with sensors that are able to measure muscle stiffness before and after the massage, providing the physician with empirical data to precisely assess the patient's condition.

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Without the robot, NovaHealth clinic's physician Calista Lim said she would assess muscle stiffness through touch, which is not as precise.

Property agent Ken Tay, who suffers from lower back pain due to the nature of his job, finds the massage by Emma the robot very comfortable.

"It feels like a real person, it is so comfortable I managed to fall asleep," the 31-year-old said.

Emma massaging a patient autonomously while physician Calista Lim treats another patient. Emma improves the productivity of the clinic as it can do the job of two massage therapists. PHOTO: NTU SINGAPORE

He is not concerned with the lack of human touch. On the contrary, he thinks that having a robot as a masseuse allows him to enjoy peace and quiet during the massage as a robot will not converse with him.

Mr Albert Zhang, founder of AiTreat and NovaHealth, said: "Emma is designed to deliver a clinically precise massage... without the fatigue faced by a human therapist."

The clinic now employs only one massage therapist apart from Ms Lim, instead of three therapists which it would have employed without Emma the robot. Ms Lim said it costs over $3,000 monthly to employ a massage therapist.

Mr Inderjit Singh (right), chairman of NTUitive, Nanyang Technological University's innovation and enterprise arm, was given a showcase of Emma by Mr Albert Zhang, founder of AiTreat, and NTU PhD student Liu Kai. PHOTO: NTU SINGAPORE

Mr Zhang said the cost savings allow the clinic to offer more affordable treatment. A treatment consisting of consultation, acupuncture and a 40-minute massage is $68 at NovaHealth.

Currently, Mr Zhang is in talks with local industry players to adopt the robot in their clinics. Mr Zhang is also in discussions with more than 20 organisations that run a total of over 1,000 clinics and hospitals worldwide.

He also hopes to adapt the technology to be used in chiropractic and physiotherapy.

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