Working collaboratively with industrial design and engineering graduate students, Rebola focuses on human factors, such as “understanding the user, their needs and how to translate those needs into unique design opportunities for these pets,” she says.
Part of that research involves pilot studies and focus groups with older adults and their caretakers in the community to get feedback on the robots to better improve the design enhancements. Cincinnati area communities, including Scarlet Oaks Retirement Community and Episcopal Retirement Services, will be participating in a longitudinal study to understand how the existing robotic pets enable companionship, and Rebola has recruited members from UC’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) to help evaluate the new ideas her class is developing.
“You are the experts,” Rebola told participants at a recent focus group, “not us. We are just the enablers.”
Feedback from these sessions led the class to concentrate on redesigning the robot dog, which resembled a cartoonish yellow stuffed animal and had the most room for improvement. They found that users envisioned a dog with enhanced realistic features from its fur to movements, so they modeled the new prototype after the Yorkshire terrier — one of the most popular breeds among older adults they discovered. Although not commercially viable today, Rebola hopes that in the future buyers can order custom breeds and colors to perhaps resemble a pet they used to have.
The class sourced high-quality faux fur from Donna Salyers’ Fabulous Furs in nearby Covington, Kentucky, making the new dog “more pettable and lifelike,” as described by focus group participant Kathi Lawrence. As a dialysis patient, she thought she could benefit from a robotic pet during her treatments. “I’m amazed that you made the dog as lifelike as the cat,” she said. “The fur and color are wonderful.”
Students also redesigned the body to make it less mechanical and more flexible, like a lapdog, and refined features like the eyes, nose and paws, all while being mindful of the technology that also must be incorporated in the body.