Human-robot interaction is Popa's specialty. He said engineers consider three modes of interaction when designing robots for this particular purpose. In the scripted mode, engineers program the robot according to prepared scripts for a particular interaction. This is Zeno's default mode, and it takes a considerable amount of work by researchers. "Developing content like that is very difficult and time consuming," he said. "Someone has to sit and program the motion and make sure it's smooth and well choreographed. That is possible certainly, but it's also difficult."
The second mode is an interactive mode with another person (in this case, a therapist) interacting with the robot to make movements that guide how the robot will act, Popa said. A sensor and a camera connected to Zeno record the actions and transfer them or play them back through the robot to work with a child.
The third mode is direct one-on-one contact with a human subject, Popa said. When Zeno is in this mode, "the child and robot are face to face, and the robot reacts to the child's motion and vice versa."
The children from the Dallas Autism Treatment Center have been particularly entertained by this mode, and they end up creating their own moves and interactive content with Zeno, he said. "It's a little bit like a child looking in the mirror. They can sit there for a long time."
The scripted mode should move to the forefront of Garver's work with patients and Zeno in September. She expects programmed scripts for exercises that link facial expressions and emotions to be ready then to facilitate the social training she aims to explore. There already has been some signs that working with Zeno taps into some aspect of human relationships that can help augment traditional therapy, she said.
During one test, children worked with Zeno to identify objects on a Power Point presentation. One of the children saw a photo of a truck and observed that another patient (who was not in the room) would like to see that photo. The other child is known for his particular interest in cars and trucks, but he does not have a lot of interaction with the child who was being tested. This type of relational behavior was remarkable for an autistic child, Garver said. "We were so blown away that he would think about this kid in another part of the building who he doesn't have much contact with," she said. "These are the little things that we as therapists are looking for" in making emotional connections.