Two recent Indiana University graduates want children with cleft lip and palate to have a Buddy—a friend that plays with them at home and doesn’t notice that the child might look different or have speech difficulties. But this pal will also turn playtime into speech therapy, without the child even noticing, says Buddy’s creators. The speech therapy “social robot” captured the top prize at a recent innovation challenge and is now a “passion project” for its developers, who know firsthand how badly children with cleft lip and palate need a pal with purpose.

Buddy is the brainchild of Kathy Li and Pavithra Ramamurthy; both have a personal connection to the condition and are recent graduates of IU’s Human-Computer Interaction Design master’s program. Ramamurthy’s sister was born with cleft lip and palate, and Li’s father is a surgeon who has performed 7,000 surgeries with Operation Smile, a nonprofit organization that provides reconstructive cleft surgeries.

Li says after reconstructive surgery, children struggle greatly to make certain sounds, and as a result, feel alone and “different.”

“In addition to communication issues, there’s a psychological part—social engagement,” says Li. “This is a huge problem, and there aren’t a lot of resources or help in the current system for these children.”

That’s why Li and Ramamurthy designed Buddy as a toy children can use at home, where they feel more comfortable, relaxed and playful than in a clinical setting. The robot stealthily turns speech therapy into a storytelling game the child plays with family and friends. Buddy will focus on certain sounds and words the child struggles to pronounce and make it a “magic word,” then lead the child and family through a storytelling game that is, essentially, speech therapy in disguise. 

Buddy’s face, a smartphone in the current prototype, is expressive and will break down the word, helping the child articulate difficult sounds by providing a visual—a method speech pathologists believe is more efficient for children. The duo says, unlike typical therapy in a clinic that can seem tedious to a child, Buddy is fun and involves friends and family.

“It’s a gamified solution in which children get to build stories, but at the same time, they’re going through the speech therapy, without feeling like it. They build better pronunciation of tough words that seem impossible,” says Ramamurthy. “Technology has never been geared toward this problem; Buddy taps into something that hasn’t gotten much attention.”

The team says the current prototype—which won the recent IU Cheng Wu Innovation Challenge—focuses on social engagement. Li and Ramamurthy are now developing a second prototype, which aims to make Buddy more dynamic with improved facial and speech recognition. The duo is looking for engineering and development experts who want to get involved, as well as investors.

The pair hopes to commercialize Buddy, but says “it’s not about making money”; Ramamurthy and Li are considering partnerships with organizations or charities to keep costs low and accessibility high.

“Children who get access to some speech therapy are already halfway toward improving their speech, but children who don’t have any access are the ones who are suffering, going through a lot of crisis situations and need a lot of help,” says Ramamurthy. “The purpose is to get Buddy to all of those children and not just a small segment of the population.”

While both are now launching their professional careers, they plan to continue developing Buddy on the side.

“As a designer, solving the right problem is really exciting—especially such a meaningful and important problem,” says Li. “These children are in the very beginning stages of their lives, and they don’t have enough resources or services to help with this issue. As designers, we can identify the right problem, dive into it and solve it by using technology and innovation; that’s the amazing part.”

Li says the next steps are to test Buddy with children and bring experts on board to improve the technology.

Ramamurthy says robotics are constantly simplifying, which could help them improve Buddy’s functionality and capabilities.

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