Little Casper is a friendly fellow. With a broad smile and big blue "eyes" (which sometimes blink in another colour) it wanders round the children's section of a hospital in Lisbon. When it recognizes one of the young cancer patients it may turn its head, greet them with a casual "ola!" (hello) and suggest a game.
If the two are playing catch-and-touch, the robot tries running away. When the child manages to catch the robot and touch one of its arms the robot greets him or her as the winner. Otherwise little Casper (Gasparzinho in Portuguese) greets itself as winner.
Some children spend more than 1 hour with the robot, others only 2 or 3 minutes at any one time. Boys and girls between 4 and 8 years are the most responsive. Many even visit Casper when it is "sleeping" in its docking station and recharging its batteries.
Casper is the result of the European research project MOnarCH (Multi-Robot Cognitive Systems Operating in Hospitals).
The scientists wanted to avoid a gadget where children sit alone in front of yet another screen. "This could promote solitude habits among hospitalized children," worries Filomena Pereira, Paediatric oncologist from the Francisco Gentil Portuguese Oncology Institute. She welcomes the development of Casper because, unlike a gadget with a screen, "a robot like this can promote social interaction."
Project coordinator João Silva Sequeira adds that Casper can do more than play with the children: "It can also assist a human teacher in the hospital's classroom," says the Electrical and computer engineer from the university of Lisbon. "It could carry out small tasks in a way we think can be an added value to the children".
The MOnarCH research project ran for 3 years from February 2013 and received €3.3 Mio EU-funding.
A report on MOnarCH (and little Casper) features on Futuris, the science programme of the pan-European television channel Euronews. It was shown on TV until 3 April 2016 and can now be watched anytime online.
Euronews short video (1:30) "Takeaway" - English subtitles
Blogpost by Pedro U. Lima and João Sequeira, MOnarCH Project Coordinator
Video showing Casper in action (4:34, in Portuguese with English subtitles)