Hasbro’s first toy for the senior set: Robotic cats to keep grandma company

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Is it another gee-whiz technology, or a sad sign of life to come for aging baby boomers?

Toy maker Hasbro Inc. last week unveiled its first product designed specifically for older consumers: a $99 robotic cat that’s programmed to roll over and purr when it’s petted and stroked.

No, it can’t leap in your lap or walk over your keyboard, but it won’t claw your sofa to shreds, either. And when you pet it, a combination of sensors translates the gesture as a cue for the robot to meow and purr, or to turn over.

“The cat will meow in various different ways, depending on how it’s interacted with,” said Ted Fischer, Hasbro’s vice president of business development, describing what the company calls its “VibraPurr” technology. “It’s a very calming kind of feeling as it’s sitting on your lap.”

Hasbro, better known for child favorites like Transformers action figures, began developing what it calls the Companion Pet Cat about four years ago when its market research team picked up on a surprising trend: When parents bought cute stuffed animals, a significant number of them went to an aging relative who lived alone or couldn’t own a pet.

The cat — which comes in orange tabby, silver, and creamy white — was chosen after the testing revealed that people were most engaged not by action figures or board games or even stuffed unicorns, but by interactive robots that reminded them of their pets.

At a time when consumers rely on technology for just about everything and routinely rattle off commands to a personal assistant hidden in a phone, it should come as little surprise that a company would attempt to sell a product that can mimic the primal satisfaction of having a cat rest in your lap.

But scholars have already offered the view that there’s something eerie about how people are willing to outsource a basic human need — keeping company — to machines or artificial intelligence software, as Joaquin Phoenix’s character did in the 2013 Spike Jonze film “Her.”

“I think this path takes us off our deepest connection with ourselves and our humanity. I am hoping that we will experiment and talk about it and reject it,” Sherry Turkle, MIT professor and psychologist, wrote in an e-mail.

In “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” published in October, Turkle said that our comfort with talking to devices and machines is a little off-key.

“We are tempted to focus so much on whether you can get an elderly person to talk to a robot that you forget that what matters is whether someone is listening,” she wrote. “In the case of the robot no one is listening. And listening, listening and appreciating the stories of our elders, is our deepest compact across the generations.”

But Fischer said it was the preferences of potential customers that directed the design of the product.

“Our experience was that it brought a lot of joy to the folks that had them,” Fischer said. Also, he envisions the companion robot facilitating interactions among family members.

“This product was developed and designed specifically for the senior market,” he said.

The company has a huge target market: The aging baby boomer generation is expected to push the number of US adults over 65 to 74 million by 2030, making up almost 20 percent of the US population. By 2050, the Census Bureau expects, there will be 19 million US adults over age 85.

Stephanie Wissink, a Piper Jaffray & Co. analyst, noted that Hasbro already sells robotic animals to children as part of its FurReal Friends series, and Companion Pets for adults is an extension of that platform. “It’s not something that we would have expected from them, but it makes logical sense that they are able to do it,” Wissink said.

Decades of research suggests that companion pets might help their owners lead happier and healthier lives.

Sony’s robotic dog, Aibo, has cultivated a devoted following since its launch in 1999 but sent owners into a frantic search for qualified mechanics who could build out replacement parts and repairs when the company stopped supporting the line in 2014.

And since the mid-1990s, a Japanese company called Paro has been selling a white, fluffy robot shaped like a baby harp seal that, like Hasbro’s cat, can respond to touch.

These robots can draw deep empathetic responses that have surprised researchers. Studies have found that the Paro, with its blinking eyes and coy seal sounds, can serve as a therapy tool and companion for elderly people with mental health conditions like dementia.

But Paro retails at around $5,000, making it unaffordable to many families.

Companion Pets, then, are more affordable. “I could see something like this product also being helpful for these populations, particularly since the price is more reasonable,” Laurel Riek, a researcher at the University of Notre Dame who studies how robots engage people, wrote in an e-mail.

Riek is among the researchers who say that people will need to rely on robots for personal care as the aging population overtakes the number of trained people available to administer care.

The robot pet, though, does come with some responsibilities for the owner. Like a real cat, Companion Pet Cat cannot be thrown in a washing machine or submerged in a sink. But it does come with cleaning instructions.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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