He's a Carolina blue color with big floppy rabbit ears, and when the furry creature is happy, those ears go straight up. When he's mad, his green eyes turn a devilish red. Equipped with a movable mouth and paws, he also can express such emotions as sad, confused, surprised and embarrassed.
He can even speak -- either via prerecorded messages and songs or through the voice of a trained therapist using a remote microphone run through the robot's "voice box." And if all goes according to plan, the children with autism who will play with him will speak back, even if it's only by pushing the proper button on an iPad app to identify what the robot is feeling.
Meet Popchilla, the working name for a toy robot that autism experts and his creators hope will enable the children with autism to recognize emotions -- in the robot and themselves.
AutismLink, the Autism Center of Pittsburgh and Interbots are working together on the Spark grant-supported project that will involve 30 children from the greater Pittsburgh area for 10 weeks this fall.
"The idea is the kids are more interested in interacting with a robot than with a human," said Seema Patel, CEO and co-founder of Interbots, the spinoff company from the Carnegie Mellon University Entertainment Technology Center that created Popchilla.
"Kids with autism have difficulty recognizing emotions ... in others or themselves. They get mad because they don't know what they're feeling," said Cindy Waeltermann, founder and director of the Autism Center of Pittsburgh.
"Popchilla is there to facilitate communication, and for some kids any communication is good communication," Ms. Waeltermann added. The hope is that someday those communication skills will be generalized into daily life.
"Recognizing what others are feeling is critical for any social interaction," said Tim Jones, autism director of Community Alternatives, Inc., an autism treatment center and another partner on the robot project.
"I have two autistic children of my own ... They're enamored of computer animations. They're drawn to cartoons. They'd much rather watch cartoons than interact with humans," Ms. Waeltermann said.
That certainly was the case the day Duncan Naughton, 3, of Ross met Popchilla for the first time.
He declined to interact with any people except his mother, Megan Naughton, when they visited the Autism Center's McCandless office recently. But with his mother's help, he did interact with Popchilla, acting on suggestions that he touch the robot, give it a high five and take a plastic cookie off the toy's head.
The same thing happened during a testing session a few days earlier when some nonverbal kids "went right for him," Ms. Waeltermann said.
"We have tested many different children, all with different levels of severity of autism," she added. "In all the cases, the interest in the robot was piqued, whereas interest in a therapist or a peer was unremarkable. In one case, we had a child who was basically nonverbal pick up a spoon and 'feed' Popchilla. Another responded by following along with a song or two."
The iPad application is still in development but will allow the child to identify Popchilla's emotions themselves. It's even possible that there may be an app that would allow a child to scribble a "message" to the robot, which would answer it. More educational apps could be added later.
Ms. Patel said her group didn't set out initially to build a robot for use by children with autism.
"It was designed as a toy version of the higher-end robots we make," she said. "But the more it was shown to the public, the more reaction we got that we should be looking into using it for autism therapy."
For example, two parents attending Kidapalooza in 2006 or 2007 came up to her and said their son had autism and communication problems, but had been talking to the company's Quasi robot for 15 minutes.
On that day, "in a group of children, you couldn't tell the child was autistic," Ms. Patel said. "We said this is incredible. We need to do something."
Eventually Interbots started trying to make connections with autism groups and personnel met Ms. Waeltermann, who had been in touch with robot experts at Carnegie Mellon. "Immediately we saw the potential. We jumped and said, 'Let's do it,' " she said.
Interbots and Autism Center of Pittsburgh got together and applied for a grant from Spark, an initiative of The Sprout Fund. Spark gave them just over $13,000, which will cover the 10-week project. In the meantime, the partners will try to find more applications and seek additional funding.
Ms. Patel said her group looked at high-end robots for the project in the beginning, but they were "out of the budget for most autism centers." Quasi, for example, costs around $65,000. "Popchilla, we're still working on a mass product, but we're hoping to keep it under $150."
For more information, call the Autism Center of Pittsburgh at 412-364-1886.
Correction/Clarification: (Published September 23, 2010) For more information about the Popchilla program, call the Autism Center of Pittsburgh at 412-364-1886. The phone number was incorrect in a Wednesday story about Popchilla.
Pohla Smith: email@example.com or 412-263-1228.