Japanese electronic pet to help elderly

An electronic pet in the form of a robotic cat that acts as a conversation partner for elderly people has been unveiled in Japan.

Matsushita Electric -- the company behind brand names such as Panasonic -- developed the robot called Tama to provide animal therapy. Unlike other robotic pets such as Tiger Electronic's Furby, which simply offer entertainment value, Tama will offer companionship and a variety of other services to the aged, said Matsushita.

"A network system will enable the pets to speak to the elderly in natural way, especially to people who are living alone, and this will make them more comfortable," said Kuniichi Ozawa, general manager of Matsushita Electric's Health and Medical Business Promotion Office.

Tama can be connected via a mobile phone or ISDN line to a network system centre, allowing health or social workers to send local news, medical information, and encouraging messages to elderly people. Tama is endowed with 50 phrases, ranging from the light-hearted, "today is the karaoke party. Let's sing a lot," to more practical information like, "today is Wednesday. It is your day to go to the hospital." Workers at a network system centre can upload a message into an elderly person's pet and then determine when Tama will say it.

The centres will also be able to monitor elderly people's interaction with the robot, potentially allowing a health or social worker to spot dangerous or suspicious trends in someone's behaviour, said Matsushita.

"Tama is basically supposed to be a conversation partner for the elderly," explained Kenji Mizutani, an engineer for Matsushita. "But, for instance, if the pet starts talking and there is no response for a long time, the centre might conclude that there is something amiss," and could conceivably call the person or notify a health worker.

Matsushita, which along with an organisation called Japan's Association for Technical Aids, spent three years and 220 million yen ($US1.9 million) to develop Tama. The company hopes to begin selling the robot sometime after the year 2001 and expects Tama to retail in Japan for around 50,000 yen.

In order for the robot to perform its caretaker/companion role, Tama sports some spiffy new technology beneath its tawny coat. Primary among this is Matushita's so-called "autonomous agent" technology, which lets Tama predict when it should become active and engage in conversation, using a built in clock chip and 2MB RAM to record past interactions.

The robot's expressions and movements are controlled by "multi-modal dialogue" technology, which coordinates Tama's speech, facial expressions, and hand, leg and ear motions. Microphones in its ears and a sensor in its head let Tama respond to questions, comments and scratches behind the ears.

"Tama doesn't move around, though," said Ozawa. "A group of elderly people we surveyed said they didn't want to get tired out chasing a robot all over the house."

The 30cm tall Tama weighs 1.4 Kg and will eventually be incarnated in a variety of animal shapes.

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