Meet Huggable, the robotic teddy bear designed for sick kids

Nobody likes being confined to a hospital bed. Children especially can feel lonely, bored or scared in these situations. Hours feel like days, and they may not be able to fully understand or describe why they are there.

Child life specialists have long understood that tapping into playtime can bring up information about a child’s social and emotional needs that might not be revealed in more structured clinical assessments. But what if you cannot physically be in the room?

Deirdre Logan, PhD, Director of Psychology Services in Pain Medicine, and Peter Weinstock, MD, PhD, Director of the Boston Children’s Simulator Program (SIMPeds), may have found the answer. Along with a dedicated, multidisciplinary research team from Boston Children’s, MIT’s Media Lab, and Northeastern University, they have designed a robotic teddy bear that may be able to supplement care team interactions on inpatient units.

The bear, called “Huggable,” is operated remotely by child life specialists and engineer-puppeteers. Child life specialists can talk with patients through the bear’s implanted smartphone device, while engineers facilitate the bear’s movements. As artificial intelligence technology advances, the Huggable team hopes their “social robot” will be able to function independently, expanding the reach of Child Life Services.

Huggable, tablet character, and teddy bearA randomized clinical trial is now testing whether Huggable can relieve anxiety and facilitate information sharing among patients and hospital staff. In all, 90 patients ages 3 to 10 will participate; one third will interact with Huggable, one third with a virtual version of the bear on a tablet computer and one with a regular stuffed bear. The goal of the study is to learn whether and how patients interact differently with Huggable than with the tablet character or stuffed bear.

Ten-year-old Aurora Primo from Attleboro, MA, featured in the video, was one of the first patients to enroll. Aurora was recently diagnosed with leukemia and is being treated by the Dana-Farber Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center.

Because today’s children are so comfortable with technology, the Huggable is both familiar and engaging to this age group. So far it seems to provide both a comfort and distraction to help them cope with the challenges of being in the hospital.

The Huggable initiative, housed within the SIMPeds program, is one of the first to look at the role of social robots in an inpatient setting. The project aligns closely with the hospital’s mission to explore innovations that enhance the total patient and family experience. Learn more about ongoing projects in SIMPeds.

Read WIRED’s coverage of the Huggable project here.