Company Introduces Jim Henson’s Creature Shop-Designed Robotic Puppy For Dementia Therapy

Retirement

A new California company has created what it says is a revolutionary way to let dementia patients continue to love and be loved by a pet without the demands of every day care.

Taking care a pet can be difficult if not impossible for seniors who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, as Tombot founder and CEO, Tom Stevens painfully discovered with his own mother when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s eight years ago.

“Of all of the bad days, by far the worst was the day I had to take away her dog,” Stevens said. As his mother’s disease state worsened and her universe of friends and activities shrank, her dog “Golden Bear” become an increasingly important companion for coping with her loss of independence. The turning point came when she managed to train the two-year-old golden doodle to be aggressive toward her caregiver.

Tombot CEO and founder, Tom Stevens’ mother, Nancy, with her son’s Tombot.

(Photo courtesy of Tombot)

Stevens said he had spent 35 years in the technology industry. In fact it wasn’t long after his mother’s diagnosis that he sold his company—ACT Litigation Services, Inc.—to DiscoverReady LLC. He founded the company that provides electronic discovery, document review and litigation management consulting services for Fortune 100 law firms and corporations.

“I started looking for substitutes for the dog,” he said. “And I wondered if there was more advanced technology that might play a role.” What he discovered, and what Jim Henson’s world-renowned Creature Shop helped him create, became Tombot, a robotic companion animal designed to be a viable option to a real dog for adults suffering from dementia, seniors and anyone who can’t have a live pet.

He said he supposed his mother wasn’t unique in experiencing the heartbreak of giving up a pet. “I knew others received comfort from animals but were no longer in a position to care for them. Studies have shown that robotic animal companions can reduce the need for psychotropic and antipsychotic meds by helping to reduce dementia behaviors,” he said. “Tombot’s robotic puppy can be an invaluable tool for increasing social engagement in the elderly, and for redirecting challenging behaviors.”

But Stevens said he studied the options already available in the way of mechanical toys to little avail. He said he found products that either cost more than $2,000 or less than $200, neither of which could satisfy his mother’s needs. The cheaper ones are simply mechanical toys, he said. “These are very simple devices that are adorable and simple,” he said, “but they are toys. They look like toys. They act like toys. They are all about cost reduction and external appearance. They are usually made with two motors. The toy industry has a problem selling products over $100. So their products are made to fit into that $25 to $75 range.”

So to solve his problem, Stevens set about creating what he says is the “only advanced robot on the market that is also affordable.”

“We are the only product that is in between those prices, that is also an advanced robot. It really is the world’s most realistic and affordable robotic animal. Anything less expensive is a toy,” he said. “We needed to invent a far more realistic robotic animal than has previously existed, while still being affordable to reach as many people as possible.”

And that’s just what he did. Currently Stevens is at capacity with pre-orders for about three months worth of production. The funding came from his Kickstarter campaign that went for 30 days between April and May. Those orders, at about $450 per unit, are slated to be delivered in May 2020. He said he will resume taking orders later this year.

And though the price point is where he wants it, the real difference will be felt by the owner. “The difference is in the lengths we went to make the robot appear realistic,” he said. “It looks and feels and behaves like a real animal.” Remember the toys with two motors? By comparison, Stevens said his prototype has 16. “The difference really is in the sophistication of the technology.”

Stevens not only put his tech genius to work on his idea, but he tapped top Hollywood animatronics experts at Jim Henson’s world-renowned Creature Shop to achieve the level of realism he believed was needed for his robot. The team at the Creature Shop provided the artistic design services for Tombot’s robotic puppies. An interview with the Creature Shop team can be found here.

By drawing upon their Academy Award-winning animatronics skills, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop captured Stevens’ vision, creating a Labrador puppy “fit for the big screen,” and the Tombot robotics team brought the puppy to life by inventing software control systems with a full suite of sensors to make the puppy both autonomous and fully interactive. “The result is a beautiful, lovable puppy with lifelike expressions and behavior, that responds to voice commands, has enough battery power to last a day, and is more affordably priced than the next best robot on the market,” Stevens said. Patents are now pending on Tombot’s design and architecture.

Tombot puppies are designed to be effective substitutes for live animal companions, and as such, provide all the benefits of a live animal without the burden of care, the risk of bites, allergic reactions or infections, Stevens said.

Features of a Tombot Puppy include:

  • Realistic Appearance: A user-friendly design that is authentic to a real dog’s anatomy.
  • Lifelike Expressions and Behavior: Software control system that allows the robot to respond to users in a manner consistent with how a real dog would respond.
  • Response to Voice Commands: Voice recognition system that listens to commands and responds accordingly.
  • Easy Charging: Provides all-day battery life with a cord that plugs in for overnight charging.

Stevens said he didn’t just hire expert design and robotics people to build a robot either. “Tombot is the result of extensive research and multiple rounds of consumer testing,” he said. “The Tombot Puppy is a charming companion that can provide heartwarming attachment, helping to relieve loneliness and reduce anxiety.”

Scientists estimate that over 90% of people with dementia develop at least one behavioral or psychological symptom of the disease (BPSD). “Some of the symptoms include loneliness, depression, anxiety, and in my mother’s case, hallucinations,” he said. “Doctors then prescribe anti-psychotics. Not only does this turn seniors into zombies, but there is also a health risk.” and “studies have shown that such symptoms can be reduced if they can form an emotional attachment, particularly to an object like a human baby doll or a mechanical animal. They get relief from the symptom and the corresponding need for the psychotropic medications goes down.”

Stevens said his robotic animal companion can provide seniors with a stronger sense of control, connectedness and purpose, and in turn ultimately reduce their symptoms as well as the need for psychotropic medications.

Stevens said following multiple rounds of consumer testing with groups of up to 700 seniors with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, the Tombot team concluded that “a robotic animal with a hyper-realistic appearance, feel and behaviors had the highest capacity to elicit an emotional attachment with seniors suffering from these debilitating diseases,” Stevens said.

In a meta-analysis of 19 studies published last week in the International Journal of Older People Nursing, researchers from the University of Exeter, in the United Kingdom, found that “For those that choose to engage with them, robopets have the potential to reduce loneliness and agitation, increase social interactions, as well as provide comfort and pleasure.” They did add the caveat, however that not everyone engages with robopets, and for those who do, “Interactions are highly varied and influenced by personal histories and the type and characteristics of the robopet.”

The researchers went on to say that training in how to best use and introduce robopets may help improve resident engagement and staff confidence in using them, and while “robopets should not be considered a replacement for human interaction, there appears to be scope for using them as therapy for agitated or isolated residents.”

After taking care of his own mother for eight years, Stevens said he understands all too well the importance of improving behavior, mood and overall well-being for those who suffer with BPSD. And he’s not the only one. Tombot recently completed a Kickstarter campaign to spread awareness about the Tombot Puppy among consumers and the investment community. Some 233 backers pledged $60,336 to bring Tombot to life. “Virtually all of Tombot’s investors have or had loved ones with dementia,” he said. “Through these interactions, we have come to appreciate that the benefits we are delivering aren’t just for seniors with dementia, but also for those most responsible for their ongoing care and well-being.”

One of the things Stevens said his team learned in their research had to do with the neorology of emotional attachment. The neural pathways that are activated to stimulate the production of feel-good chemicals like oxytocin in our brains are the same for most emotional attachments, including mother and child, mother and adoptive child and human and pet.

“We realized the object we created had to trigger those emotional pathways,” he said.

His second course of study was to understand the preferences of seniors with dementia, he said. “We learned they have a very strong preference toward realism versus toy-like or cartoon or abstract. About 20% of his preordered Tombot puppies are going to children who may have autism or that are too young to have a pet. “The demand has been overwhelming,” he said. “The response has been nothing short of extraordinary.”

Stevens said he also tried to address what some see as an ethical dilemma of “fooling the person.” But he said he found that even in moderate to severe dementia, the individuals in his studies understood that the prototype was a robot. “They actually prefer that it’s a robot because most have memories of past pets and the care burden and the anxiety of taking care of animal is overwhelming,” Stevens said. “They may also have attachments to deceased animals and a robot doesn’t threaten that.”

Stevens said he is using “upgradable software” so that owners will be able to expand and improve on the behaviors of their animals. And though currently, Tombot is deemed a “wellness device,” he said he is working on getting FDA approval so that private insurance and Medicare will ultimately pay for the robots for people who need them.

Stevens said incredibly 100% of his initial investors have been “people whose families have been impacted by a family member with Alzheimer’s disease. We didn’t go looking for that, but those people came forward to us. There is no venture capitol or any anonymous donors. We know who are investors are, and they are as tied to this as we are. We have had literally thousands of people volunteer to help us from doctors to hospitals to caregivers. I field those communications every day.”

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