Thought-Controlled Robot Avatars Provide New Help for the Disabled

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The world of tomorrow ... today?

Robot avatars will provide a new level of freedom and interaction for the disabled, elderly, or bed-ridden that they do not currently enjoy -- some even controlled by a user's thoughts, say scientists, inventors and enthusiasts. These avatars will “fill in” for those who are not able to physically attend -- communicating for them, said science fiction author Robert Sawyer.

“This is liberating for the person [who is disabled],” Sawyer told “A human being feels helpless when he or she has to ask another person to get something off a high shelf for them or help them with their hygiene. But we don't feel we're imposing on robots; we're empowered when we have one.”

This is more than merely a good sci-fi book, however. This is real.

Last year, Paul Wilford was biking with his wife when he took a nasty fall, broke his hip and had to work from home for two months. Fortunately, there's a robot for that.

Wilford is a senior research director at New Jersey's Bell Labs -- a research facility famous for developing the first computer transistor and the UNIX operating system. Wilford used a "telepresence" project called NetHead to connect with the world from home, a free-standing terminal that serves as a robotic avatar.

On his computer, Wilford installed eye-tracking software. When he looked at someone in a meeting, the NetHead looked in the same direction. Audio software amplified the voice of whoever was speaking, something the human brain does naturally. The system will eventually relay information back to the remote computer about the tone of the room and even whether everyone is laughing at a joke.

Wilford eventually recovered from his injuries. Yet, the NetHead telepresence system and other fully autonomous robots will one day help the disabled to participate in meetings, join community groups, attend school functions, and even work in an office -- all from a remote computer.

Robert Oschler, a freelance computer programmer, is developing a robot for the disabled (you can join the cause, too). The robot can move around the room and communicate over a video feed.

“I have a rare chance to provide a system that can extend the eyes and ears [of the disabled] beyond their frail bodies and improve their contact with the physical world at a price within reach,” he told Oschler has tinkered with robots for the past decade; this new system is a commercial venture.

The project, called Robodance 5, uses the Emotiv EPOC EEG headset to read facial movements, jaw clenches, and track eye movements. The software then relays these commands to the WOWee Rovio telepresence robot. The main innovation: the entire kit would cost below $600 compared to the five-figure amount for commercial robot avatars.

“I trained the Emotiv system to react to my head and facial movements,” Oschler said.

“The system can be trained to create usable triggers using the 14 electrodes and the built-in gyro accelerometer on the Emotiv. For a person with locked-in syndrome [who does not have any freedom of movement], they would train a completely different set of triggers,” he told

Other robotic systems are already helping those with disabilities. In the UK, a robot avatar named KASPAR (Kinesics and Synchronization in Personal Assistant Robotics), developed at the University of Hertfordshire, interacts with kids who have autism.

Both the MantaroBot and the Anybot are capable of “filling in” for someone at a meeting. However, the NetHead and the Robodance 5 systems both use eye-tracking and facial recognition to help the disabled control the robot. And the Anybot costs about $15,000. (Currently, Bell Labs is in an early research phase for the NetHead.) 

Dr. Rory Cooper, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh (UP) and co-director at the Quality of Life Technology Center, told that persons with disabilities will have robots in their homes within the next ten years, some that serve as telepresence avatars.

“Assistive technology is becoming progressively smarter from computer access software, augmentative communication, and mobility both with wheelchairs and prosthetics,” he said.

But there's still work to do. Society has not outfitted classrooms, libraries, and other public places with all of the equipment needed to make a robot avatar a reality, Cooper said. For example, there is no existing infrastructure to allow an avatar to work at a library. And wireless speeds are getting faster, but two-way video communication requires far better throughput.

In the end, robotic avatars could become part of everyday society, as accepted today as a wheelchair and handicapped parking. Sawyer says the only gating factor is whether society accepts them.

“Robots should help personas with disabilities and caregivers have more quality time together,” Cooper told