XII.2 March + April 2005
Page: 45
Digital Citation

An interview with Dr. Corinna Lathan of AnthroTronix

Jean Scholtz, Corinna Lathan

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Dr. Corinna Lathan is the president and CEO of AnthroTronix, a human factors engineering firm located in Silver Spring, Maryland. Before founding AnthroTronix, Dr. Lathan was an associate professor of Biomedical Engineering at The Catholic University of America (CUA). She holds advanced degrees in Neuroscience and Aeronautics and Astronautics from MIT. In 2002, she was named one of the world's top young innovators by MIT's Technology Review. In that same year, the AnthroTronix product, CosmoBot was named the innovation of the year by Maryland's The Daily Record. AnthroTronix does R&D in human-technology interaction products in the healthcare rehabilitation, defense, space, and entertainment areas.

Tell me about your interest in robotics. When did you start working in this area?

My interest in robotics is focused on the human-technology interaction. In graduate school, I was interested in biomedical aspects of space flight. One of the interesting questions posed at this time was the operation of a robot in space. When I was a professor in the Biomedical Engineering department at CUA, I was interested in robots applied to surgical procedures. I worked with faculty at Georgetown Radiology on surgical robots. I came to CUA partially because of their relationship with the National Rehabilitation Hospital. I saw the same key question with astronauts in space, a marine in the trench, and children with disabilities: how to manipulate and explore an environment that is remote, dangerous, or otherwise unavailable. In the case of children with disabilities, not being able to explore and manipulate their environment further impedes their development. My initial National Science Foundation [NSF] funding did not involve robots but used simple interfaces such as legos with embedded photo sensors that children with cerebral palsy could use to make something happen.

Once I saw the possibility of marketing this technology, I took a leave of absence to form a company, AnthroTronix, Inc. AnthroTronix was located at the business incubator facilities at the University of Maryland-Technology Advancement program [TAP]. Through TAP, I partnered with Catherine Plaisant and Allison Druin at the HCIL lab who were working on PETS [Personal Electronic Teller of Stories]—a storytelling robot. From this we developed Jesterbot, a robot that was remotely controlled by young children, moving their feet, hands, and head. This helps young children to learn cause and effect. In parallel, we received a grant from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) to continue this research.

About the same time, a DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Program Agency] program on Tactical Mobile Robots [TMR] was started. We wanted to look at new ways to control these robots. We worked on vibrotactile feedback and using gloves for control. We developed the SPAT-A test, a test of spatial ability test as we found a correlation of spatial ability and teleoperation ability.

In the past five years we have had approximately equal funding from the military and the rehabilitation areas.

What role do robots play in rehabilitation?

In our first NSF grant, we partnered with a school to see what development goals were appropriate to target for children with disabilities. We worked with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and focused on physical therapy. Even though our first emphasis was on increasing the mobility of children, we kept receiving feedback to focus on language skills. This is the biggest market for assistive technology. Parents want to be able to communicate with their children. In our software product we have incorporated voice input and pressure sensors. However, the voice input is not based on words—for example, a sharp noise in one application causes bubbles on the screen to burst.

Generally, therapists in rehabilitation do not have access to high-tech solutions. They all have tricks they use—primarily focused on getting children's attention. The robot is a big help here in that most children are very captivated and engaged. The robot can also be a part of the intervention as well—it can lead a child through a game, or the child can take the initiative and the robot can follow the child's motions. We are seeing very good results using robots with children with autism.

Our product, CosmoBot, is an interactive robot complete with a unique interface device we call Mission Control. There are also computer-based games and software that tracks the progress of the child. The entire package is not yet at a price point where it can be used in individual homes so we're bringing out the controller separately. This will be available in the summer of 2005.

How do you do interactive design in the rehabilitation area?

We started at the HCIL lab at the University of Maryland working with Allison Druin's children as design partners. These children assisted us in the initial designs so that the products appeal to children. We also have partnered with clinics, including Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital, Maryland's largest rehabilitation clinic. The clinicians there arranged for us to bring in prototypes and work with children already in therapy. The therapists have complete freedom to try whatever works, so they are able to incorporate our devices immediately into therapy. The robot's instant appeal to children basically allows the therapists to spend more time focusing on therapy. We use the feedback from the therapists to further refine our product.

We also work with teams of therapists and education researchers at small conferences. We vet these refinements with kids in the clinical settings.

What are you doing in the military domain at the present time?

On the Department of Defense [DOD] side, we have a Phase II Small Business Innovation Research [SBIR] Contract with the U.S. Army working on advanced human-robot control interfaces. We are also working on haptic devices for the Army's Future Force Warrior Program.

What is your long-term vision for AnthroTronix?

I really enjoy Research and Development (R&D). I like to figure out new projects and work with emerging technologies. We're spinning off a subsidiary now to market our rehabilitation products. I'd like to develop a large base of intellectual property and spin out companies to bring these products to market. One of my major goals is to work more with NASA developing applications for space flight.

What has been most challenging for you in starting AnthroTronix?

Transitioning from the academic world to the corporate world! Finding the right team, educating ourselves about business, avoiding mistakes, and recovering from mistakes when we didn't avoid them. Getting our first product out will be a significant milestone.

What has been the most rewarding for you in this venture?

In some respects, product development feels less rewarding. In order to market the product we are actually simplifying technology which is not as exciting as the development of additional functionality. I think that it has been exciting that the areas we work in are really synergistic. Our work in these different areas has opened doors for other collaborations.

What do you see as the biggest challenge for human-robot interactions?

There is still a heavy focus on autonomy for robots. This is technology looking for a problem. I think the challenge is to find the real problems—whether it is a limitation experienced by a child or a soldier—and look to see how human-robot interactions can overcome these limitations.

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Dr. Jean Scholtz

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©2005 ACM  1072-5220/05/0300  $5.00

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