We asked ... Philipp Mahler, Avatar Kids

"The robot facilitates and promotes the connection between children"

A robot that provides a link between hospital and classroom? The project Avatar Kids makes this possible: acutely ill children are able to actively participate in school activities with the help of a tablet computer. The teacher facilitates the communication. REHACARE.com spoke with Philipp Mahler of Avatar Kids about the opportunities this project provides.


Photo: Philipp Mahler; Copyright: Preview

Philipp Mahler; © Preview

Mr. Mahler, what is the project about and how do you decide which children are being considered for it?  

Philipp Mahler: What’s special about the project is the connection made with sick children who are not able to go to school for an extended period of time. We achieve different effects: on the one hand, the children are not losing social context and stay in touch with their classmates. On the other hand, the children are more accessible to medical assistance when they have positive experiences by being in touch with their friends. Ultimately, the children at school are also able to better understand the everyday life of the child in the hospital and all of its experiences. Compared to other projects, the friendly and open robot causes the children to be extremely curious. You can explain many things when you have the children’s attention.

So far, we have made excellent experiences with certain profiles. This method especially helps cancer patients. Unlike those cases where the child comes from a difficult environment. It would virtually be sent back into its problem environment. Ultimately, the physician needs to check whether the child is able to cope with the situation and be a part of this type of set-up. Subsequently, parents and teachers decide whether all parties are in agreement.

How does the avatar contribute in letting the children participate in the social get-together?

Mahler: The actual core aspect of this project is that the robot is there to promote and facilitate this relationship. It is very interesting to see how the robot impacts people in general. It is like a new classmate, a representative. This is also why we chose a humanoid robot. Theoretically, you could also simply set up a monitor and run a program for video conferences.
Photo: Robot in the middle of a chair circle; Copyright: Avatarion
Photo: Pupils welcome their friend via avatar; Copyright: Avatarion
Photo: Avatar is sitting at the place of the pupil; Copyright: Avatarion
Photo: Young boy lifts up his arm; Copyright: Avatarion
How do you make sure that the respective child is the center of attention and not the robot?

Mahler: This is something the teachers take care of in a way. They facilitate the dialog between the students and the absent child. The children can see each other thanks to videotelephony and audio telephony. Getting the attention of close friends is usually not a problem. They are immediately involved because they are interested in the respective person. They instantly ask questions like, "How are you? What did you do today? Why don’t you have any hair? And why do you have to take medicine? How often did the physician see you today?"

Since the robot typically sits in the classroom, it also includes all of the other children and at that moment there is no doubt the child and not the robot is the center of attention.

However, at first there is a certain time of acclimatization during which the avatar’s skills are being presented. Right then, the robot is clearly the center of attention. As soon as the class goes live, the robot is seated in a chair. Now you can see the image of the child on the monitor. From that moment on, it’s clear that somebody dials in and the patient joins in. Everybody knows that this is something special. This is also why the focus automatically shifts from the robot to the classmate.

What does inclusion mean to you?

Mahler: Inclusion is a very complex topic. Here the focus is on a sick child who is not able to attend school and who is frequently taken from his/her social environment. Inclusion is a very special subject in this instance. The opportunity to reintegrate the children into their classes is great, helps all parties involved and is a very enjoyable and important event.
More about Avatar Kids at: www.avatarkids.ch

Kilian Spelleken
(translated by Elena O'Meara)