Robot ‘Buddy’ for children needing speech therapy, wins innovation challenge

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Tingyu Li, left, and Pavithra Ramamurthy pitch their “Buddy” speech therapy robot for children with cleft lip and palate. The team won first prize and $7,500 at the third annual Cheng Wu Innovation Challenge. (Photo: Kelly Sedlacek, courtesy, Indiana University School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering)

When two graduate students, one of them Indian-American, got together to follow their passion for helping children, they ended up with an award for their inventiveness.

The two Indiana University second-year master’s degree students, Pavithra Ramamurthy and Tingyu Li, created “Buddy,” a robot that encourages children with cleft lip and palate to do speech therapy in the form of storytelling in their homes, among friends and family. The project won first prize at the third annual Cheng Wu Innovation Challenge on April 11, topping seven other entries to win $7,500.

Ramamurthy and Li are in the Human-Computer Interaction Design lab at IU’s School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering. They know some of the challenges faced by children with cleft lip and palate. Li’s father and his team have provided 7,000 free surgeries to children, and Ramamurthy’s sister was born with the condition, a press release from the University said.

“When a child is practicing in a clinical setting, she is thinking about how she is pronouncing the word,” Ramamurthy is quoted saying in the press release. “In a home setting, children get excited and talk really fast. That is the context Tingyu and I want to give,” she added.

In a more comfortable surrounding where they are more at ease, they can take on the engaging activities of storytelling and visualization, the two inventors believe. “Their friends are participating, their family is participating. The children are not alone. And as they go through the process, they’re using the words in continuous speech,” Ramamurthy said.

Buddy also provides visual references to children about how to pronounce words. Ramamurthy said speech pathologists believe children will understand, articulate and practice better when they can see the enunciation very clearly and in a large format.

The prize will allow them to build another prototype of Buddy, the students said. The first prototype has a 3-D printed body and an animated face shown on a smartphone. It uses voice-recognition software, which allows for real-time feedback. Li said she and Ramamurthy want to recruit developers and engineers to help bring Buddy to the public.

“Seeing a child use Buddy would be the best day of my life,” Li said.

One of the two Second Place winning teams also included an Indian-American, Aditya More, who along with Ruoxun Chen, Tian Dou, and Marshall Robbins, all first-year master’s degree students in Human-Computer Interaction Design, won for their invention related to food banks, entitled,”Small Donation-Big Impact.” It tied for second place with another team.