Student project helps to reach autistic children
Posted: August 02, 2005
By Ilene Ladd
LEWISBURG, Pa. - Gunter is a happy monkey — or Gunter can be sad, angry, confused, surprised. Overall, he has seven different emotions that he can show on his little monkey face.
Gunter is an animatronic stuffed monkey created by Bucknell students Liz Grasing '05, Dan Lounsbury '05, Dave Wight '05, and Tom Stroka '06 for their senior design project in mechanical engineering, advised by Steve Shooter, associate professor of mechanical engineering.
Gunter was created to help the psychology department at Bucknell work with children with autism or Asperger syndrome, a variant of autism. Children with autism or Asperger syndrome experience deficits in social interaction, according to David Evans, associate professor of psychology. These children cannot recognize facial expressions. That is where Gunter comes in.
According to Evans, Gunter will provide a way for the psychology department to work with autistic children to "allow an interaction of learning about facial expressions and practice recognizing and imitating facial expressions."
The senior design students began with a robotic-looking face with eyes and eyebrows that moved. The face was the work of a former graduate student of Shooter. Shooter's six-year-old son called it "the scary face." Research has shown that there is a phenomenon called the "uncanny valley." People respond well to puppets and robots the more human they look, to a point. After that point, there is a drop off in response. People don't want something non-human to look too human. The first problem that the design students tackled was how to create a face that wouldn't scare children. Gunter the monkey fit the bill.
The design team received some additional assistance from Elaine Williams, associate professor of theatre. Williams, who designs puppets, served as a consultant and gave students insight into how to make Gunter look "soft."
The team next had to tackle the issue of getting Gunter's face to express emotions. The students broke down exactly which facial muscles are used to create surprise. Do the corners of the mouth curve up or down, is the brow wrinkled, do the eyebrows slant upward or downward? Gunter produces his range of expressions through 15 different motors that move individual facial components.
"The tight constraints for fitting all of this actuation within the head created quite a challenge," says Shooter. According to Shooter, before Gunter is ready to work with autistic children, his emotional expressions need to be refined and his user interface improved.
Still, Shooter says, "The students did an outstanding job on a challenging project. The greatest benefit to their education came from their interaction with other disciplines, which will serve them well in the future."
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