Mechanical Pup for Seniors with Dementia Created with a Touch of Hollywood Flair

by | May 24, 2019 | Closeup

 A local firm aims to prove that man’s best friend can be especially helpful to the elderly, even if the pooch is of the mechanical variety.
Tom Stevens is producing a cute, life-like robotic puppy that can act as a therapeutic companion to those suffering from dementia. His Valencia-based firm, Tombot, has developed the mechanical pup, and it’s expected to begin shipping next year.
The idea for the animatronic K-9, known as Jenny, came about when his mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2011.
“She couldn’t remember what she had for breakfast on a given day but remembered that I was building a robot for her,” says Stevens. “It was something she could connect to emotionally.”
He noted that five generations of prototypes have been developed, and each has been tested with his mother as the mechanical device was fine-tuned. He could see its positive effects even in the developing stages.
His work on the project began with research into the science of emotional attachment, poring over scholarly documents on dementia, psychology and other related matters and in doing so he developed the idea to create a lifelike mechanical dog that would look, feel and respond like a real puppy. The goal is to help dementia patients better cope with loneliness, depression and anxiety resulting from their condition.
A one-time pre-med student who opted instead for a business career, he worked during his student days with Alzheimer’s patients and became familiar with the challenges that caregivers face.
He developed a curiosity about the disease because it was so different from the other medicine he was studying. People were otherwise healthy but struggling with day to day cognitive functioning. When his mother was diagnosed, he began a formal study out of a need to learn what she was going through. It kept drawing me in, he says, particularly about what treatment options are available.
Doctors typically prescribe anti-depressants, anti-anxiety and anti-psychotic medications. “Not only did these medications turn my mom into a zombie, I learned that there’s a very high risk of mortality for the elderly who are receiving these medications. It became a mission to reduce or eliminate my mom’s need for the medications.”
Creating a mechanical device of this nature is a new kind of endeavor for Stevens, who has worked in the tech field for decades. But another factor that drew him to this project was a lifelong fascination with motion picture special effects and animatronics.
His dad was a Universal Studios executive who frequently worked on Saturdays, and Tom would come along with him to the Universal lot. He was around 9 or 10, at the time, and when boredom would set in, he could wander the studio lot as his dad worked in his office. The two rules set out for him were don’t get hit by a tram, and don’t walk onto a hot set (where filming was in progress).
He admits to being a bit star struck as a youth, and in later years he delved into acting for a time, dabbling in it in college, and after selling his business, he studied the craft a while.
“I did a lot of scene study and realized it was extremely unlikely that I’d get a part,” he says. He continued, “I felt at the time that I had a lot more to give, and that acting would always be there if I ever decided to return to it.”
In his youthful wanderings through the Universal backlot he would occasionally meet and chat with celebrities — including Lindsay Wagner, star of “The Bionic Woman.” He also became fascinated with special effects and animatronics, part of the behind the scenes machinery that brings Hollywood’s on-screen illusions to life.
It was the 1970s and disaster films were big. MCA Universal created “Earthquake.” Universal was using a lot of miniatures and green screen special effects in their pictures. He remembers seeing the miniaturized model of 1920s Chicago created for the Paul Newman, Robert Redford opus, “The Sting.”
“That really stayed with me throughout my life,” he says.
His years-long research into Alzheimer’s and its treatment and work with hundreds of seniors with dementia, along with an active interest in cinema craft paved the way for his current work. And another show biz connection played a role in the project, as well — Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, the same group that gave us The Muppets, provided artistic design services for the prototype robots.
The company ran a Kickstarter campaign in March. The goal was to get a feel for what production volumes should be, plus they wanted to start building a social media community.
The first customer shipment is scheduled for May of 2020.
So how might elderly folks react to this kind of mechanical pet?
Stevens notes that careful study was made to ensure that Jenny would be well received. Research showed that yellow dogs with floppy ears are most appealing, and so, that’s how Jenny was modeled. Although the pup moves and makes sounds like a real dog, he notes that Jenny is too cute to make anyone feel at all uncomfortable.
“Sometimes, someone will be a bit startled when Jenny yips, because they weren’t expecting it,” he says, “but then they’ll laugh.”