Unless its name is Johnny 5, a robot probably isn’t the first place you’d turn to help your kid learn social skills. But a French company thinks that’s so 20th Century. Leka is a new “robotic toy” that mimics human emotion. Where most robots you know are sent back from the future to kill, this one helps children with special needs interact with other people.
As Force Awakens fans already know, little robot balls are great companions. This thing is cute, mobile, and musical. It may even help your kid understand daily tasks through verbal feedback. But the most useful tool for kids with autism is its empathy technology. The Leka robot uses sensors to detect and interact with their behavior. If they smack it aggressively, it turns red and flashes a sad icon. If they hug it, it smiles. If they try to give it a juice box, hopefully it doesn’t spark and throw up. Leka also comes preloaded with a bunch of games, including “Hide and Go Leka,” “PictureBingo,” (where it can identify everyday objects that are help up to it) and “ColorMemory,” (where kids match Leka’s colors to RFID-enabled tiles you can put around the room).
The Leka development team worked with FEGAPEI, a European organization that assists adults and children with disabilities, for the past 2 years. They tasked 14 researchers, teachers, and parents to test the robot with exceptional kids, and early reports are positive. The ultimate goal is to let children to be more autonomous, which is why between all the robo-play parents can upload reports to a smartphone or tablet to chart their progress. Leka isn’t slated to roll into American homes until May 2017, but if you pre-order now you’ll save almost $200.