Virginia researchers develop robot that could help kids with autism

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — His name is NAO — pronounced “Now” — and he may be the future of autism intervention.

The humanoid robot is part of a two-pronged research initiative aimed at helping kids with autism better socialize and communicate. It uses facial recognition to detect expressions and games that could one day provide the positive feedback and practice some people need to improve social interactions.

Dr. Khan Iftekharuddin, ODU Professor and Chair of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is inspired by his nephew who lives with autism.

“If there’s anything I can do, I should do,” he told 8News sister station WAVY.

It’s Khan’s drive to help his nephew and others that led to the study, which has two parts. The first uses web cameras to detect facial expressions.

The computer deciphers these expressions of normally developing kids. It also detects the lack of expression on the face of a child with autism.

“And then computer automatically tells us if this child is happy or sad,” Kahn said.

The idea is to use this information to develop interventions and possibly games. They’ve already come up with a version of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” that kids can play with the robot.

“A platform like this could be in a clinicians’ setting where these kids can spend time,” Kahn told WAVY.

The research is in its early stages, but experts already know kids with autism are visually oriented and practice helps them learn, so these researchers are hopeful their robot may one day change lives.

Kahn and his team are working with Eastern Virginia Medical School on the research. He says if all goes well, it could be available in five years or more.

This is a developing story. Stay with 8News online and on air for the latest updates.

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