Interacting with others can be so stressful for children with autism that many prefer to play by themselves. Big thinkers have used everything from humanlike robots and online apps to art and music therapy to help break a cycle of isolation and help teach kids social skills. The Nao humanoid, for example, has proven an effective way to teach skills that could lead to more interactivity.
But most tools currently aimed at curing this problem teach children skills and then ask them to bring those skills into the real world on their own. Professor Henrik Hautop Lund, Head of the Center for Playware, Technical University of Denmark, has come up with a technology that teaches people social skills and fades into the background as it ushers users into real life social situations. It involves a set of robotic music cubes that lets people interact with music as it is playing—they can activate or deactivate song elements by simply flipping the cubes. He calls it "playware."
"In the end, the cubes themselves do not matter much," says Lund. "But what they mediate is important, namely the social interaction and coordination between human beings. We are not so much interested in the human-robot interaction, but interested in the human-human interaction, which emerges from the play with the social playware."
While the end result of playing with his cubes might seem on the surface to be little more than a cool remix, the underlying idea is to take the pressure off of kids (and socially challenged adults) to interact and put the focus on controlling the different elements of the song. A prototype showcased at the Roskilde Festival, featured large 1m3 cubes. Every colored cube represents a different musical instrument—blue for bass, light blue for vocals, yellow for guitar, orange for drums and so on. The five sides of each cube control different variations of that instrument, with the sixth side switching it off.
The side that faces up is the one that plays, and it plays musical loops of that variation. Each foam cube contains electronics in its core that determines its orientation, which is sent via Bluetooth to an application on the iPad or iPhone. An app called MusicTiles handles all the processing and changes the sounds produced as the cubes are rolled or turned over.
According to Lund, people end up playing with each other almost without realizing it. "We have made the cubes so big so that you can only handle one or maximum two cubes at a time," explains Lund. "So the play (playing a nice song, in this case) demands that you play and coordinate with other people. Further, the soft material invites physical play by pushing, kicking, jumping on the cubes."
The songs are sourced in such a way that the various song elements can be separated and controlled via the cubes. Since the songs are provided by assorted musicians and groups such as Bombino, Peter Gabriel, and Volbeat, the remixes that anyone composes by playing around with the cubes sounds professional.
Lund plans to create starter kits of smaller cubes (0.5m3 each) in various shapes, with five cubes per kit for kids to play with. Instead of creating only songs, Lund says that the cubes can be enhanced to create multisensory rooms easily. This means kids could also control other aspects in their environment such as colored lights and projections on the wall, for example. While experiments show the efficacy of multisensory rooms for helping autistic kids, they have been difficult to set up until now. "With the new concept and technology, we can set up such multisensory environments for anybody, anywhere, anytime."
Not everyone is buying into the idea in its current form. "This isn't really like a robot with programs that lead the way so much as it is like a Fisher-Price toy that you push a button and make sing," says Lynette Louise, a mental health and autism therapist. "As such, loads of autistic children will love it, but a very few will gain social skills from playing with it."
"Children with autism require structure and explicit instruction in order to develop appropriate social skills, where they learn to initiate, reciprocate, sustain, and terminate a social interaction with another person," explains Dr. Adiaha Spinks-Franklin, developmental-behavioral pediatrician, Texas Children's Hospital. "If a child with autism were left to play with the playware musical cubes on his own, he would most likely revert to what comes naturally to him—playing with the cubes alone without interacting with others."
Lund states, though, that therapeutic assistance and guidance is to be established later and that the initial crucial challenge is to create effective social playware tools—tools that push whoever's playing into a play dynamic where they begin to engage in little interactions with others. "There is no doubt that such guidance by therapists are needed 'on top of' the playware tool," says Lund, "But what we are interested in is to create and mediate a playful state of being. This is the important starting point. If we have a tool that brings along this social-play dynamics, then we can start building structured therapy, sessions, and practices on top of this and make rigorous tests of these."
"And," continues Lund, "when we have playware that brings people into social play dynamics, we may use the playware in applications for many different user groups. "For instance, kids with ADHD and adults with dementia and social anxiety disorders may also find it beneficial.
If these music cubes do come out in the market, the plan is to price them about the same as inactive soft objects for sensory rooms being sold to schools, approximately $1,000 for around 10 objects.