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Learn more about Kaspar

Meet Kaspar

Kaspar is a child-sized humanoid robot designed as a social companion to improve the lives of children with autism and other communication difficulties.

By interacting and behaving in a child-like way, Kaspar helps teachers and parents support children with autism to overcome the challenges they face in socialising and communicating with others.

Kaspar can:

  • Act as a social mediator, helping children to better interact and communicate with adults and other children.
  • Help children to explore basic emotions.
  • Use a range of simplified facial and body expressions, gestures and speech to interact with children and help break social isolation.
  • Respond autonomously to touch, using sensors on its cheeks, arms, body, hands and feet, to help children learn about socially acceptable tactile interaction.
  • Engage in several interactive play scenarios to help children learn fundamental social skills such as imitation and turn-taking – skills that children with autism can find very challenging.
  • Engage pairs of children to help develop and improve collaboration skills.
  • Enable cognitive learning by playing games involving personal hygiene or food (Kaspar can hold a comb, toothbrush or spoon).
  • Engage children in confidence building activities by jointly singing a song or drumming.

Research trials

The robot has been developed through more than a decade’s research by the University of Hertfordshire’s world-renowned Adaptive Systems Research Group, led by Professor of Artificial Intelligence Kerstin Dautenhahn.

Following field trials in schools and family homes, researchers are working to make Kaspar available to every child that needs it. A first-stage trial to evaluate the effectiveness of Kaspar as a clinical intervention for the NHS is due to begin later in 2017.

The project activities involve:

  • review of the ongoing and previous efforts in the field of socially assisted technology
  •  selection of participating children and introduction to the individual characteristics of each child
  •  finding out the expectations and experience of the parents and the therapists
  •  setting up tools for measuring and evaluating of project’s results
  •  creating robot software scenarios for KASPAR
  •  creating complementary Apps for personal mobile devices
  •  testing the effects from their use through interaction with the children in clinical, educational and home settings
  •  multiplier events, transnational meetings and training activities
  •  writing and publishing scientific papers.The project partners will carry out the activities respecting each other’s competences and dully executing allocated assignments.

Kaspar’s journey

Kaspar, the social robot, has been designed and developed by the University of Hertfordshire’s Adaptive Systems Research Group, a leading international robotics research team.

Origins of Kaspar

In 1998, Professor Kerstin Dautenhahn and her team began developing and researching robots for use as therapeutic toys for children with autism who struggle to interact or communicate with the outside world.

Building on this early ground-breaking work, the Kaspar project was born in 2005. The vision: to create a social robot companion that would improve the lives of children with autism through play.

Amid mounting evidence that early intervention for children with autism has a significant impact on a child’s development trajectory, researchers set out to explore the extent to which interacting with Kaspar would help children with autism communicate more freely with other people.

Development of Kaspar

Previous studies in artificial intelligence and robotics had shown that a robot which looks too life-like can be unnerving. For this reason, the research team gave Kaspar a human-like but very simplified and child-friendly appearance.

Kaspar is the size of a small child and has a flesh-coloured face, but no facial hair or any additional details such as wrinkles. The robot has a neutral expression, not specific to any age or gender, so children can interpret Kaspar however they wish. To adults, Kaspar might not look pretty, but its realistic, human-like, yet simplified features very much appeal to children with autism.

Kaspar has gone through several iterations as researchers have refined their design in response to findings from field trials in schools and homes, using a 3D printer to create new parts.

There are 28 Kaspar prototypes in existence.

Impact of Kaspar

Autism affects more than one in 100 people. Children with autism can find social interaction and communication, even with parents and siblings, overwhelming, unpredictable and frightening.

Kaspar has been purposefully designed as an expressive robot offering a more predictable and initially repetitive form of communication, which aims to make the social interaction simpler and more comfortable for the child.

Extensive field trials

Researchers have carried out extensive field trials in schools and in family homes to evaluate how teachers and parent may use the robot. Around 170 children internationally have interacted with Kaspar.

The studies have shown that Kaspar can act as a safe and predictable learning tool for children with autism. It enables them to learn social interaction and communication skills and meet specific educational or therapeutic objectives (for example, engaging in direct eye-contact or taking turns) in an enjoyable play context.

Independent research published in the International Journal of Social Robotics in 2016 found a group of 54 practitioners in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are “convinced that Kaspar can be useful in interventions for a broad range of therapy and education goals for children with ASD.”

Kaspar in schools

Most of the research with Kaspar has taken place in schools, nurseries of specialist early learning centres around the UK.

Kaspar has been supporting children at TRACKS Autism, a specialist early years centre for children with an autistic spectrum condition based in Stevenage, for six years.

Teachers at TRACKS say Kaspar has helped some children recognise emotions and parents have reported seeing their child interact for the first time in the classroom after playing with the robot.

Nan Cannon Jones, founder of TRACKS, said: “We have had a lot of wow moments since Kaspar became a permanent part of our school.”

A study in a special primary school in Athens, Greece, involving 15 play sessions with seven children aged seven to 11, resulted in teachers concluding that Kaspar could have a positive impact on children with autism over the long term.

Kaspar at home

 Research has been conducted with Kaspar in family homes to ensure it is a useful and effective tool for parents of children who have autism or other learning difficulties.

Family support groups in Hertfordshire have collaborated in the Kaspar project and discussions with a charity around the use of Kaspar in home visits are moving forward.

Kaspar in hospitals

The National Health Institute for Research (NIHR) is funding a two-year trial, under its Research for Patient Benefit Programme, to evaluate the effectiveness of Kaspar as an intervention in clinical practice.

The early stage trial, run in collaboration with Hertfordshire NHS Community Trust, is designed to inform the development of a larger scale trial that, if successful, could see Kaspar being used across the NHS.Another research study analysing the impact of Kaspar on children with autism in Macedonia’s largest paediatric hospital will commence early in 2017.

These studies mark the first time Kaspar has been trialled in a clinical setting and could open up a new way to benefit children with autism and the clinical specialists that work with them.