Monkey business? A*Star robot's not just a bag of tricks

Hopes are that the Huggler can become a high-tech alternative to traditional pet therapy for the elderly

The Huggler, developed by Dr Tan Yeow Kee (above), has proven a hit with the elderly. -- ST PHOTOS: KUA CHEE SIONG
The Huggler, developed by Dr Tan Yeow Kee (above), has proven a hit with the elderly. -- ST PHOTOS: KUA CHEE SIONG
The Huggler, developed by Dr Tan Yeow Kee (above), has proven a hit with the elderly, such as Madam Chia Ah Leh (left), seen here with the pet robot. ST PHOTOS: KUA CHEE SIONG

A stuffed monkey has become quite the sensation at the St Luke's ElderCare centre in Hougang.

It laughs, grunts, yawns and whines depending on whether it is stroked, tickled, squeezed or hit.

"I prefer it to an actual dog as it does not bite," said Madam Chia Ah Leh, 82, one of the centre's patrons.

But this monkey is more than a simple toy.

It is a prototype of the Huggler - a pet robot being developed by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star).

Its purpose goes beyond entertainment, with researchers hoping to use it as an alternative to pet therapy in improving the quality of life for the elderly.

"Pet therapy has been proven to work in reducing depression, blood pressure and loneliness," said Huggler inventor Tan Yeow Kee, the group leader in Robotic Senses at A*Star.

The pet robot, which uses a patented sound effect technology, can do this without the mess or the need to be fed. Plus, it would not bark and scare users.

But Dr Tan, 35, wants to do more with the robot.

He believes it can become a tool to diagnose mental conditions such as dementia.

The Huggler can do this by monitoring changing patterns of interaction between it and the user.

Dr Tan hopes that his creation can supplement current diagnostic tools such as questionnaires and extensive manual observation that "require skilled staff, time and resources".

A prototype Huggler - the technology can be imported into any stuffed animal - has been rolled out at ElderCare's Hougang centre. The monkey has proven so popular that centre manager Samuel Chan hopes to introduce the device to ElderCare's other 11 centres in the future if appropriate funding can be received.

"Over these three months, we have seen how the Huggler has helped quiet individuals open up and how it has aided in the social interaction between the senior citizens," he said.

"It has becomes a common topic for them to discuss, and reminisce about their kampung days."

Dr Tan hopes to start mass distribution of the Huggler within the next two years.

However, it depends on the "endorsement the product receives from the Asia-Pacific and European regions".

Further modifications also have to be made.

The Huggler's ability to recognise physical and verbal cues such as shouts, screams and cries is in the pipeline.

There are also plans to include a purring response to help keep the elderly calm, said Dr Tan.

The use of therapeutic robots in nursing homes is not new.

The Paro, a robot baby seal invented in Japan, has been in use in that country and Europe since 2003. But it comes with a US$6,000 (S$7,600) price tag.

Dr Tan hopes that his Huggler will cost under US$2,000.

He said: "The Huggler would allow us to commercialise robotics in a way that will make a difference to the parts of society which need help."

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