Inventor of robotic seal visits Virginia Retirement Community to discuss health benefits

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What does it take to become the world’s most therapeutic robot? Apparently, it’s dirt-resistant artificial fur, five kinds of digital sensors, and a sound library recorded from real baby seals. Paro, an eighth-generation robotic baby seal with all those characteristics, was given that title by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2002. Dr. Takanori Shibata, Paro’s Japanese inventor, visited the Vinson Hall retirement community last week to explain the history and purposes of his mental commitment robot.
Shibata, with an electromechanical bioengineering doctorate, designed Paro to straddle the lines between a therapeutic tool and a pet. Inspired by the physiological and psychological benefits of animal therapy, but concerned with the obstacles some people face in owning real animals, Shibata set out to create a robot that would find acceptance from its users, especially the elderly. Shibata said that over 20 percent of Japan’s population is over 65, with that statistic expected to rise to 25 percent by 2015, and one of his main goals with Paro is to improve the quality of life for older or incapacitated people.

SHIBATA EXPLAINED that robots have two general purposes, industrial and service, and that service robots are further divided into those that perform a physical service and a mental service. The last category is where Paro fits. Because Shibata is hoping that people who interact with Paro will do so for a length of time, it requires a commitment by the person “” hence the term “mental commitment robot.” To make such a commitment easier, Shibata made Paro more realistic.
“I emphasized the subjective measures when designing Paro,” he said, saying that factors like attractiveness and likeability were more important for Paro than they would be for other types of robots.
Shibata outlined some of Paro’s features, including the antibacterial, dirt-resistant artificial fur, which comes in both white and gold, although baby harp seals are generally exclusively white. Paro weighs about six pounds and is roughly 25″ x 18″ x 8″. “The whole body is covered with touch sensors,” Shibata said. Paro has two internal computers, three microphones, two light sensors, a posture sensor to tell if he is being held vertically or horizontally “” “it’s like a Wii,” Shibata said. Paro has an electromagnetic shield that makes him safe to be held by people with heart pacemakers. To make each Paro individualized, each robot’s facial fur is hand-trimmed, and the robot can learn to respond to a name other than “Paro” if that name is repeated often enough. The name Paro comes from a contraction of “personal robot,” Shibata said.
Originally, Shibata intended for his robot to be a cat, but after early testing decided to change it. Animated robots, he said, are divided into four categories based on appearance: human-like, familiar animals (including dogs and cats), non-familiar animals (including seals), and new, artificially created animals (such as the Furbys popular in the 1990s).
In the early tests, people expected too much of the cat robot, Shibata said. They would initially react positively to it, but after a while started to compare it to the cats they had interacted with, and started looking less favorably on the robot, as a less soft or less cute version of their familiar feline. Because most people cannot draw on an experience with a live baby seal, it’s harder for Paro to disappoint them: “People do not compare the seal robot with the image of a real seal,” he said.

VINSON HALL’S director of development, Marcia Toomey, contacted Shibata after Paro had been on display in an exhibit of Japanese technological inventions at the Kennedy Center. Shibata was happy to loan a Paro to Vinson Hall. Just before the program, Shibata had the chance to visit with some residents in Vinson Hall’s Vestry community and see them interact with Paro. “We just visited the nursing home here, and we had very good scenes,” he said.
Kathleen L. Martin, the CEO of the Vinson Hall Corporation, was with Shibata when he was sharing Paro with the Vestry residents. She described Paro as “very irresistible.” “It’s truly amazing to see how he calms people down.” She said that using technology to improve health, like Paro does, is a goal at Vinson Hall: “Our vision is to be an innovative, model community … to be on the cutting edge,” she said.
Evaluation of Paro’s impact includes the “face scale,” where people choose which of a series of faces showing happy and sad faces best represents their mood, measurements on the geriatric depression scale, and comments from nursing staffs. The findings include an increase in vigor and brain activity, as well as a decrease in stress and general mood improvement. “At the same time, they can share Paro,” Shibata said, noting that when one individual is playing with Paro, often several people come up and initiate conversations, improving communication in the group.
Alison Humora, an administrator, said that Vinson Hall residents have benefited from pet therapy in the past, both officially and unofficially, as a nurse manager sometimes brings her dog to work. She also noted that the residents viewed Paro similarly to how they viewed the therapy dogs: “It was definitely the same type of interaction,” she said, noting one extra benefit a robot had over a live animal: “Paro’s not going to lose interest and walk away.”

“IN JAPAN, PARO has already been commercialized,” Shibata said. Retail price on the robot in Japan is about $4,000, but Shibata estimated that the price would be higher in the United States to make up for the cost of meeting different import criteria. He anticipated Paro may be available for purchase in the Unites States as soon as this fall. Shibata noted that about 70 percent of Paro’s owners in Asia are individuals — in Asia, the robot is viewed more as a pet substitute. But in Europe and the United States, Paro is seen more as a therapeutic tool. For more on the robotic seal, visit

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