Case Study: PARO

This case study follows the format established as part of my research into virtual pet design, which will culminate in the design of my own virtual pet.

PARO, a physical form factor robot pet developed by AIST and first released in 2003, is an attempt to use appealing virtual pet design in the mould of Furby to improve quality of life. PARO is primarily focused on helping elderly people less able to care for real pets, particularly those suffering with dementia and confined to care homes, where access to flesh-and-blood therapy animals can be difficult.

The therapeutic benefits of engagement with animals have been well documented, and PARO is just one example of designers using robots to emulate this beneficial companionship in a way that is more accessible to those who may find it difficult to care for a real animal. There are many of these therapy robots in existence; this case study will use PARO to examine how engaging pet design can emulate the therapeutic benefits of a relationship with a real animal.

Paro, available in a range of colours.
PARO comes in a range of colours.

Illusion of life.

A real baby harp seal, on which PARO is modelled.
A real baby harp seal, on which PARO is modelled.

Like Furby, PARO’s physical design is intended to be as lifelike as possible to reinforce the illusion that it is a living creature. It’s appearance is modelled on a baby harp seal, intended to be inherently cute and appealing. PARO’s design features key elements of Konrad Lorenz’ ‘baby schema’, such as a large head and wide eyes, that have been demonstrated to appeal emotionally to humans. The choice to model PARO on a baby animal was a deliberate one; PARO’s appearance is intended have a calming effect and to stimulate care-giving feelings.

This is reinforced by the range of responses PARO is capable of that further the illusion that it is a living creature. PARO responds to contact, and is able to differentiate between positive contact, like stroking, and negative contact, like hitting. PARO can recognise human voices directionally, and is able to identify tones of praise and certain words, such as its own name.

PARO also has inbuilt intelligence that allows it to learn simple behaviour patterns, for example repeating an action that has it receive positive feedback. Unlike Furby, PARO actually can learn to recognise simple aspects of language and will alter its behaviour to suit its user.

From the PARO website: ‘By interaction with people, PARO responds as if it is alive, moving its head and legs, making sounds, and showing your preferred behavior. PARO also imitates the voice of a real baby harp seal.’

PARO charges with a plug inserted into its mouth, simulating feeding.
PARO charges with a plug inserted into its mouth, simulating feeding.

Care and attention has been given at every stage of design to maintaining the illusion that PARO is alive; rather than changing a battery, PARO is charged by inserting a charger shaped like a baby’s dummy into its mouth, simulating ‘feeding’ the animal.

Interaction design.

Much like Furby, beneath the furry exterior PARO contains a number of sensors and systems that enable it to give required responses. This is, however, a far more complex robotic system than a Furby. From the PARO website:

A diagram showing the internal systems of Paro.
A diagram showing the internal systems of Paro.

‘PARO has five kinds of sensors: tactile, light, audition, temperature, and posture sensors, with which it can perceive people and its environment. With the light sensor, PARO can recognize light and dark. He feels being stroked and beaten by tactile sensor, or being held by the posture sensor. PARO can also recognize the direction of voice and words such as its name, greetings, and praise with its audio sensor.’

The application of these sensors allow PARO to simulate the senses of a real animal, and therefore respond in a way that users would expect a real animal to. Anything unessential to physically interacting with PARO has been minimised, down to the design of the ‘dummy charger’, which is designed to turn the act of recharging the robot into an intimate interaction with the virtual pet.

The entire contents of a Paro box.
The entire contents of a Paro box.

While this design philosophy is similar to that of the Furby, PARO has a greater fidelity of interaction, capable of genuine, if basic, learning and personalisation routines. As a therapy agent PARO has a greater need of this fidelity, as the therapeutic benefits of animal interaction require a human to be able to form a genuine emotional bond with a subject.

Social factors.

Paro's responses to human contact have a positive emotional effect on its users.
PARO’s responses to human contact have a positive emotional effect on its users.

The effectiveness of therapy robots in care is the focus of many studies, a lot of which feature PARO as a test case. Interactions with robots have been found to have the same pain and anxiety relief as interacting with a real animal; this coupled with the fact that a robotic animal is safer to handle than a live one make robotic pets a potentially excellent source of companionship and palliative therapy for patients with ailment like dementia, which make regular contact with living animals more difficult.

This paper from the University of Aukland examines the specific benefits of using PARO in a care home environment, and compares results to those of interactions with an on-site therapy dog. The researchers conclude:

‘Overall this research found that loneliness can be improved using companion robots and the robot has an affect comparable to a live animal on the social environment. Paro is capable of improving loneliness in older people in elder care facilities and should be considered in future care plans.’

The following video follows an elderly Japanese couple and their interactions with PARO:

In the video, PARO is described as ‘like family’, and the owners do not consider it to be a robot. The video also touches on the bereavement felt at the death of a real pet, something that PARO’s virtual nature can avoid. In a way, the virtual pet prepares the couple for the death of their real pet.

Another user, an elderly lady living alone, finds that PARO helps reduce feelings of loneliness following the death of her husband. She cites feelings of calmness and comfort through interacting with PARO. All three users in the video purchased PARO because they felt themselves too old to look after real pets.

It is worth noting that the users in this video do not truly think that PARO is a real animal; rather, they treat it as if it were because it engenders a positive feeling despite the fact they know it to be artificial. PARO’s affect on users is similar to that of the Furby on the children in this Radiolab segment, who feel uncomfortable placing the Furby in situations that make it react with discomfort whilst simultaneously acknowledging that they know it to be incapable of genuine discomfort.

This emotional reaction speaks to the ability of virtual pets to form genuine engagements with users, and PARO serves as an example of how that can be used in a therapeutic environment to bring comfort to those potentially unable to find it elsewhere.

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