This robot therapy duck comforts kids with cancer

Forget about the TV's -- this project from Aflac and Sproutel is the real star of CES.

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    CES is flush with giant TVs, smart fridges and plenty of other superfluous nonsense. So it was a breath of fresh air when insurance company Aflac and a company called Sproutel showed up with a robot duck designed to comfort children with cancer. The My Special Aflac duck is, in many ways, not terribly different from other toy pets like Furby or an Aibo. It's cute, cuddly and packed with sensors that allow it to interact with you. Scratch under its chin and the duck will lift its head and let out an appreciative little quack. Find its ticklish spot under the wing and it'll shake about and erupt in laughter.

    Gallery: Aflac robot duck hands-on | 11 Photos

    But it's more than just a feathery companion -- it's educational and therapeutic. Children diagnosed at a young age often have trouble communicating how they feel. A selection of RFID enabled emoji cards allow patients to use the duck to mirror their own emotions. Tap the frowny face to its chest and it'll lower its head, slouch and let out a sad whimper. Touch the silly face to it and it'll dance and quack along to the radio. It'll even try to mimic your speech pattern (in quacks, of course).

    There's also a port-a-cath with an RFID chip so that children pretend to give the duck chemotherapy as they're undergoing treatment themselves. The medical play helps kids cope with their own treatment by familiarizing them with the process and making them feel like they're not going through it alone. There's even a companion app with AR features that extend the medical play. Kids can give the duck a sponge bath or administer injections. It then responds, with help from the built-in Bluetooth connection.

    The app also allows children to build their own worlds filled with soothing ambient sounds. They can explore a forest filled with a flowing stream and croaking frogs. And the duck can be made to play those soothing noises with the tap of a spaceship-shaped soundscapes card. If soothing sounds aren't cutting it, the duck can also coach kids through breathing exercises to calm them down.

    Peel off the machine-washable skin and you can see all the sensors and motors that make the My Special Aflac Duck work. The motors that get it to nuzzle against you allow for fairly lifelike movement modeled on real ducks. And the speaker on top doubles as a vibrational motor of sorts. So a child can hold the duck close to them and feel its heart beat against them.

    So far, Aflac and Sproutel have tested the duck with over 100 children. But this should be just the beginning. Aflac hopes to get a My Special Duck in the hands of every one of the nearly 16,000 children diagnosed with cancer in this country every year. It's an ambitious goal, but an admirable one.

    Click here to catch up on the latest news from CES 2018.

    After a brief stint in the IT industry, Terrence made the transition to tech journalism and never looked back. Early in his career he took a particular interest in the intersection of technology and politics. Now, as managing editor of Engadget, he helps lead an impressive team of reporters that explores how that tech permeates our society. He's appeared on RT, NY1, The Brian Lehrer Show, WSJ Radio and ABC Radio. In his downtime Terrence brews beer and collects hobbies at an alarming rate.

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