MOVIA Robotics, Inc. is a Connecticut-based robotics company that helps children with learning disabilities. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company has accelerated the deployment of its Robot-Assisted Instruction (RAI) system for the home ahead of schedule to help families with learning disabled children with the challenges of distance learning.

MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price spoke with MOVIA Robotics President and Chief Scientist Timothy Gifford about the company’s latest development.

NAN PRICE: How were you able to ramp up the deployment of your system?

TIMOTHY GIFFORD: We had the at-home unit on our roadmap and we were getting very good responses from schools. We’d planned to get the product out by the end of 2020. When COVID-19 hit, we accelerated our timeframe and got it out much faster by putting some other things on the back burner. We felt there was a real need to get the product into homes since these kids can’t go into schools to get their services or have people come to their homes.

We had launched our beta trials in mid-March and we’re still working out the final deployment version. Last fall, Movia received a U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) contract, which gave us more resources to move the product forward.

When we were at the CES conference in January, we connected with a company that produces a small robot with the right amount of functionality at a low price point. That was the last piece of the puzzle for us in terms of being able to bring the product to the home. When we found this robot, we saw the opportunity. We wanted an affordable and durable robot because the home environment is a very unforgiving environment. We ported our software to their robot and built it into our home system.

NAN: Did you have to alter your programming to make it more remote-friendly?

TIM: Yes, we did. We simplified the interface because it was originally designed for schools, where teachers and specialists could adjust the programming as needed. We automated a large part of the system so it can be preset to run at an appropriate level.

In addition, we are extending the product to allow for remote operation. We’ve created a way to look at the data about how the child is doing and then remotely adjust the system. This way, a parent can work with a specialist or teacher to deliver a curriculum or content that fits in with the child’s individualized education plan, then we can remotely make adjustments as needed.

NAN: Tell us about how these robots are helping parents with virtual learning.

TIM: One of the key developments of our system is the fact that it’s semi-autonomous. It does a lot of the work of delivering lessons and deciding what to do as it’s interacting with the child. The parent or teacher is still in the loop and provides input to help keep the robot appropriately aligned with what the child is doing. But the lessons and activities are all structured. So, someone who’s not technically adept and isn’t a trained psychologist, therapist, or teacher can successfully provide the lessons.

Right now, we’re having families join our beta program so we can do testing to ensure the product is easy to use and appropriately designed for the home user. The feedback we’re getting from parents is great.

NAN: Anything specific you can share?

TIM: Sure. We’re proud of these success stories.

One parent told us: “The MOVIA HomePal has become a bridge between school and home services.” They said the robot enabled their son to practice new tasks outside of formal settings and bring those newly learned skills back to the Tele-learning environment to showcase what he’s learned.

We worked with parents of another developmentally delayed child, who shared their experience with MOVIA. They received a therapy robot for their son to use at home and let us know, “In the few short months since we have started working with [the robot], our son’s eye contact has improved, he responds to his name more frequently, his functional vocabulary has more than doubled, he will sit/engage in activities for longer periods of time, and he even started initiating play with his little brother.”

NAN: That’s incredible! What’s next?

TIM: We’re working on two scenarios where schools can use these units in the home. In one case, the family would receive a unit and then work with the school for lessons and activities. In the other case, the school would provide the unit to the home and a specialist or teacher could log in to the robot in the child’s home and run the sessions remotely while also doing a video chat. They would have their clinical intervention time because the clinician would be remotely present and the robot would be delivering the intervention.

It works very nicely. Kids at home trying to do the sessions with a therapist on an iPad or laptop just aren’t engaging as well with a video. The added level of engagement the robot brings is key and it makes it feel like this is a product for the moment.

The timing is serendipitous. This pandemic is very hard on everyone, but it’s heartening to be able to work on a product that can help in a fundamental way.

Learn more about MOVIA Robotics, Inc.
READ: CT Robot Software Company Helps Children with Learning Disabilities
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