Two of my most frequently read blog posts have been those I wrote about the telemonitoring robot called Autom and the “mentally ill” stuffed animals called Paraplush. When I saw one of my faithful readers and colleagues, Dorothy Pavloff from California Technology Ventures, the other day, she handed me a flyer for what can best be described as the electronic offspring of Autom and Paraplush, the PARO Robot. I knew I had my next post the minute I saw it.
PARO, according to its flyer, is “an advanced interactive robot which provides psychological and social effects to human beings through physical interaction.” Allow me to translate: we’re talking stuffed baby seal toy that responds to touch, light, movement and sound. In fact, PARO “learns” to engage with its owner, responding to its name and sort of cuddling/purring/squeaking when stroked. I particularly like how their marketing pamphlet notes that “if you hit it, PARO remembers its previous action and tries not to do that action.” Good thing, because it would be a serious bummer if you hit it and it took a swing back at you.
The idea behind the PARO is that animal-assisted therapy, while highly effective with many patients, is not always practical due to animal allergies, unsuitability of animals to certain locations, and animal upkeep requirements. Stroking and speaking with animals provides tremendous positive therapeutic benefits for patients with Alzheimer’s, children with autism and others who have difficulty engaging with caregivers. According to PARO’s developers, this robotic substitute has virtually all of the same benefits as animal therapy without the hassle and inconvenience of an actual living thing.
Notably, nursing homes are the largest purchaser of PARO’s therapeutic baby seal robots, particularly in Japan and Denmark. Japan I understand; they were invented there. Denmark? Must have run out of herring robots.
Today, about 40 PAROs reside in U.S. nursing homes, according to a recent article. Notably, they were certified last year by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a Class 2 medical device. FDA reviewers must have found the robo-seal a welcome change from all those coronary stents and heart valves. I am sure the FDA was delighted to hear squeals coming from toy seals and not from tortured medical device entrepreneurs for a change.
A key drawback of the PARO, however, is its price. $6000 is what it costs to make PARO your friend. An actual seal costs a zoo about $25,000, from what I found on the internet , so compared to that it’s a bargain; but in a world where healthcare costs are out of control, a $6000 roboseal sounds like a stretch. I can just hear the folks at my health plan now, “We will cover a maximum of $19.99 for a stuffed animal provided that it also cleans your teeth and reduces cholesterol, but otherwise, go jump in a lake.”
The good news is that I remembered that my daughter had the next best thing when she was little: a Furreal Friend. Furreal Friends are basically robopets that have similar characteristics to PARO, in that they move when touched, respond to sound, make little noises and are just a little creepy. Furreal Friends come in dog, cat, and other more typical pet forms (although I note they now have a chipmunk…must have been a strike in the squirrel department) and have virtually all of the features of the PARO at a retail price of $29.99-$199.00, depending on the number of features you require.
I doubt Hasbro has sent their Furreal Friends through an FDA approval process, but I bet they would jump right on it if they knew that there were 16,000+ nursing homes in the U.S. (and god knows how many in Denmark) that could use them for therapeutic purposes. Roboseal, welcome to healthcare reform; don’t let the wallet hit you on the way out.