At eight-months old, human babies get a bit of an independent streak: They start to take advantage of their relatively stronger limbs to begin creeping and crawling around their homes. It’s an important time for their development, not just as a step toward the ultimate goal of walking, but as part of getting comfortable interacting with their environment.
Thus, babies born with mobility problems like cerebral palsy can be particularly disadvantaged at this time of life, "missing out on all sorts of opportunities at socialization, exploration, and cognitive social development," says Carole Dennis, a professor of occupational therapy at Ithaca College.
What if there was a way to help mobility-impaired little ones—too young to operate a wheelchair—begin exploring on their own at this important stage in their development? Dennis, along with Helene Larin and Sharon Stansfield, professors of physical therapy and computer science, respectively, has developed a new type of robot that could potentially do the trick.
They’re calling it the WeeBot, named for the wee size of its user, but also for the technology it relies on—the balance board of the Nintendo Wii (essentially a video-game controller you can stand on). Babies sitting atop the balance board, which rests on a sonar-equipped robot, can control the robot’s motion based on the direction they lean and how they apply their weight to the balance board.
In trials with babies born without mobility impairments, babies are positioned on the robot within striking distance of a toy. "It’s intuitive for a baby to learn toward what it wants," says Dennis. As "the baby is leaning toward the object that it wants, the balance board picks up that lean," which directs the mobile robot in the direction of the toy. Babies manage to maneuver toward and grab the toy in eight out of nine attempts.
While trial runs so far have been done mostly on babies without mobility impairments, the team has gotten the chance to see how babies with cerebral palsy and Down’s syndrome respond to the device as well. Dennis says that a 15-month-old baby with cerebral palsy was "very successful" but a 7-month-old baby with Down’s syndrome wasn’t. "He wasn’t very interested in reaching for objects."
The team hopes to do more work with mobility-impaired babies in the coming year, and run 12 as opposed to nine trials with each child who comes into the lab. "We need a longer experience in order to show any changes," Dennis says. "We need to demonstrate that it makes a difference for the babies involved." Will the babies improve at "exploring their environment more actively, and perhaps being more engaged more socially with the people in the environment?" asks Dennis.
If all goes well, the team imagines commercializing WeeBot as a therapeutic product for children born with disabilities. "We are certainly hoping that, once we’ve shown that it can be effective, we can find a company to work with," says Stansfield. "But we’re not ready yet."