This Otter Robot Wants Hugs and Belly Rubs

Photo: Courtesy MIT/Course 2.009.
The pictures may not do it justice, but Ollie, a prototype robot, is actually really adorable and built for a good cause. Crafted to look like a baby otter, Ollie is a therapy robot that can be used to help manage depression and anxiety in elderly dementia patients. 

Ollie is designed to mimic the benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy, a type of therapy that uses animals to improve someone's social, emotional, or cognitive behaviors. Holding an animal or petting a dog, for example, can have a positive calming effect on those who suffer from cancer, dementia, or post-traumatic stress. Unfortunately, access to a real animal isn't reasonable or feasible for all patients, so a therapy robot like Ollie can act as a surrogate.

As seen in this video, the robot reacts when you handle it, for example, hugging your hand or purring if you rub its belly. Built for $500 using a Raspberry Pi for a brain, Ollie also has sensors that can detect how you're handling and interacting it. The robot's creators expect Ollie could be manufactured for as little as $90, which is far cheaper than existing therapy robots like Paro, the $6,000 robotic seal, or the $30,000 blobular yellow Keepon robot (of which there's now a $50 consumer version). As a baby animal like Paro, Ollie would inspire its handlers to hold and carry it gently like an infant—however, it's still quite durable, with a waterproof layer protecting its electronic innards and washable fur. 

Ollie was designed as part of an MIT course on Product Engineering Processes in 2013. In the course, teams work in groups of 15 to 19 to develop and build a functioning alpha prototype of a new product, and then present it to an audience of 1,300 product designers, entrepreneurs, and academics. (No pressure.)

As IEEE Spectrum reports, it's unclear what has happened to Ollie since it was developed, or if there are further plans to commercialize the therapy robot (we also reached out for more information). We hope Ollie does resurface one day; the world could use more huggable robots. 

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