The AuRoRA Project studies if and how robots can become a "toy" that might serve an educational or therapeutic role for children with autism. Our main aim is to engage children with autism in coordinated and synchronized interactions with the environment thus helping them to develop and increase their communication and social interaction skills. Important social skills that we aim to facilitate are turn-taking and imitation, in addition to general communication and interaction skills that are required in human-human contact. Humans are the best models for human social behaviour, but their social behaviour is very subtle, elaborate, and widely unpredictable. Many children with autism are however interested to play with mechanical toys or computers. Our project aims at children who have less developed communication and interaction skills.
Our work comprises a number of research questions:
- To develop a behaviour-based control architecture for an interactive robotic platform, so that the robot functions as an interactive "toy" which based on a basic behaviour repertoire can express more complex behaviours, depending on the interaction with a child, or a small group of children.
- To test the suitability of different robotic platforms, including mobile, as well as humanoid robots. So far we have been using the mobile robots Labo-1 (donated by Applied AI Systems), Pekee (Wany Robotics) and the mobile robotic dog Aibo (Sony Corporation), as well as a small humanoid robotic doll (Robota, developed by Aude Billard) and a child-sized humanoid robot Kaspar (developed by the Adaptive Systems Research Group at the University of Hertfordshire).
- To develop robot controllers so that the robot can identify and adapt to different play patterns of children interacting with the robot.
- To investigate different qualitative and quantitative evaluation techniques in order to point out the communicative competencies of children with autism. Quantitative techniques are based on the robot's sensors readings, as well as on an ethological analysis of video recordings of the children's play. Qualitative evaluations use Conversation Analysis (CA) for the in-depth study of behaviour in context. The latter approach has proved to be particularly useful for evaluating communicative behaviour that children with autism direct towards other people present during trials (carer, experimenter, or other children).
- To develop a model of child robot interaction where the robot acts as a mediator and an object of shared attention, encouraging the child to interact with peers (other children) and adults (teachers, carers, parents).
- In addition to the above-mentioned robotics related issues, we are also investigating how interactive software can access and develop story-telling and narrative skills in children with autism.
- To investigate and develop new methods in Robot Assisted Play for children with special needs.
The careful design and testing of communication and interaction techniques in robot-human interaction is a big scientific challenge for this project, and it can only be realised through a series of prototypes and their evaluation in interaction with children with autism. The project is therefore an ongoing long-term project, started in 1998.
The project collaborates with different schools in the Hertfordshire and Essex areas, including Radlett Lodge School, Colnbrook School, Bentfield Primary school, Middleton School and Woodland School ( Edgware).
Previously, part of the project was supported by an EPSRC grant. Currently, the project is supported by University of Hertfordshire.