When a child facing a long hospital stay must be pulled out of school, the experience of being away from friends and classmates can lead to feelings of isolation and sadness. As school rhythms go on normally for others, the missing student may become a “ghost child” — out of sight and out of mind. And even when they’re healthy enough to return to school, children who’ve missed six or more months of school due to illness often don’t want to go back, fearing they’ve fallen too far behind and may no longer fit in.
But thanks to an elegant little robot, Microsoft Azure and the Internet of Things (IoT), sick children now have a way to be “present” at school, interacting in real time with their teachers and classmates.
The robot, from Avatarion Technology, is designed for children ages 4 to 12 and serves as a child’s 3-D avatar — a physical presence in the classroom that bears the child’s name and sits in the child’s place. Using interactive video communication and remotely controlled movements, the robot becomes the sick child’s eyes, ears and voice at school.
Miles away, at the hospital, the child uses a tablet computer to communicate, send images and control the robot’s movements. The robot’s integrated camera, microphone and speakers let the child see and hear what is going on in class and speak with the teacher and classmates. The software interface on the tablet includes buttons the child can use to communicate gestures and body language via the robot, such as nodding, shaking the head, standing or raising the robot’s hand. These physical movements enable the child to more actively participate alongside peers and feel included in activities in ways that wouldn’t be possible with a simple tablet or computer interface.
The teacher also has a tablet that connects via the robot and can share assignments, images and activity instructions with the child. An optional smart device mounted on the robot’s head enables two-way video communication when desired or can display an image, an emoticon that shares the child’s reaction to something or a message that indicates the child has gone away for a while. Medical staff at the hospital oversee the child’s use of the technology to ensure energy levels and health needs are managed appropriately.
Children in the classroom are naturally drawn to the friendly-looking — and undeniably cool — robot. Familiarity with the use of avatars in video games and the robot’s lifelike ambient movements make it even easier for classmates to adapt to seeing the bot as an avatar for their friend. Having the robot present among the absent child’s peers helps maintain social bonds while the classmate is away and smooths reintegration when the child returns to school. Having contact via the robot avatar also helps teachers keep the child in mind throughout a long absence and keeps teacher-student communication more natural in the classroom setting.
Behind the scenes, Microsoft Azure IoT Hub ties the whole system together, enabling Avatarion system administrators to connect and remotely maintain, update and manage multiple IoT robots and devices from the cloud. Because of the psychological nature of the robots serving as avatars for children, it’s essential that they remain securely up and running and be able to support live HD streaming for up to nine hours a day. IoT Hub telemetry monitors the status of the robots and controllers in the field, and, using Microsoft Stream Analytics along with a Power BI dashboard, the system flags potential issues and sends notifications, such as when a robot’s battery will need to be changed.
Avatarion is the brainchild of social entrepreneur Jean Christophe Gostanian, whose team worked with a child psychologist, a Japanese robot-maker and Microsoft’s Azure IoT team to create the solution. For the past two years, the robots have served as avatars for sick children in schools throughout Switzerland, and the company has plans to roll out the solution to schools, hospitals and children around the world.
As Gostanian and his team look to the future, they’ll continue to explore new ways to incorporate technologies, such as Microsoft HoloLens, to enable even finer control of the robot avatars. His dream is to see robots making lives better for sick children around the world — a dream that can be realized from anywhere, at any scale, thanks to Microsoft IoT.