New breed of robot helps seniors stay in touch with their loved ones

- Some say it's like Skype on steroids.

A new robot at the Augustana Care's Learning Lab for Elder Care Technologies in North Minneapolis can help the elderly stay connected with their loved ones.

"I think it's a huge surprise to me because its so comfortable. And its so much like a real person that it feels like its a real person," 79-year-old Jim O'Brien said.

The senior center bought the Beam robot to show people like O'Brien how technology could help them stay in their homes.

In this case, O'Brien is using it to talk to the program director a few feet away, but in the future it could be a friend or relative anywhere in the world as long as they have a WiFi connection.

"The most fun thing for me would be to talk to my brothers. I've got five living brothers and a couple of step-brothers and step-sisters. They live around the country," O'Brien said. "This way instead of just long distance phone calls, we could see each other and it would be just like we were together really." 

Anyone who logs into the special computer program can "beam" their image and voice to the robot, which has a video screen where it's head would be. 

They then use the arrow keys to move the robot around and talk "face to face" with the person on the other end. 

"We are entering the realm of the Jetsons," Program Director Jamar Patterson said. "This kind of reminds you of the robot they had that did all the work for them around the home." 

Not only can this robot be used to help seniors stay connected with their loved ones, it can also be used by their doctors to make virtual visits with them,

"With this tool, they can say, 'You don't have to come in, I can see what you need here,'" Patterson said. "With this tool they can say, 'It is time for you to take your medicine,' and you can see if they take their medicine. It could come in handy with someone who has dementia or alzheimers and they need a visual for them to actually do it."

The best part is O'Brien doesn't have to learn any new technology to stay connected.

"It was warm and comfortable," O'Brien said. "I didn't know what it was going to say next. But there is nothing scary at all. Not at all." 

The Beam robot only costs about $2000. 

Patterson says this is a first generation robot and its creators are already working on a more advanced version with arms.


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