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Remotely controlled robots open social connections for disabled people in western Japan

The avatar robot "OriHime" that the Tokushima Prefectural Government has started renting out is seen in the western Japan city of Tokushima on Nov. 6, 2020. (Mainichi/Ayane Matsuyama)

TOKUSHIMA -- The government of this western Japan prefecture has been lending out avatar robots for free since late October, aiming to create opportunities for people who find it difficult to move and communicate due to disabilities and other reasons to engage in social activities from their homes or hospitals.

    The portable robot named "OriHime" is easy to control remotely, and has been gradually spreading across the country as a new communication tool for patients with intractable diseases. An official of the Tokushima Prefectural Government commented, "I'd like for patients to use the robots, and realize their dreams of going places and seeing things," and calls for their widespread usage.

    OriHime measures 23 centimeters in height, and weighs 660 grams. Users of the robot can communicate with others with a function that enables them to enter information through eye movements. Even when patients are bedridden, they can observe their surroundings through a camera that has been attached at the robot's eye level, and hold conversations using a microphone and speaker. The care robot has also gathered attention after Yasuhiko Funago, an amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) patient and House of Councillors member of the political party Reiwa Shinsengumi, proposed that they be used in the Diet and held trial runs.

    Yuka Uchida is seen controlling an OriHime robot through her eye movements in the western Japan city of Tokushima on Nov. 6, 2020. (Mainichi/Ayane Matsuyama)

    "My field of vision is limited from atop the bed, and my line of sight is the same when in a wheelchair. When I view outside scenery using OriHime, I learned that the world visible to me completely differs just by a difference in the height of my eye level," said Yuka Uchida, 38, a muscular dystrophy patient from the city of Tokushima, while recounting her experience of using the OriHime robot under the prefecture's rental system for two weeks from late October. She said that although she was aware of the care robots through the media, they were out of her reach financially as the one-month trial for an individual rental plan by the robot's Tokyo-based manufacturer OryLab Inc. cost at least 29,800 yen (about $286), excluding costs for Wi-Fi and iPads to control the robot.

    During the rental period, Uchida tested out the robot's usage by moving its hand and legs through eye movements, and enjoyed looking at outdoor scenery while lying down by having her caregiver take the robot outside. Uchida said, "Some with intractable diseases give up going outdoors, or hold back on communicating their ideas out of consideration. I hope that many people will be given the chance to become positive by using the robots."

    Those who can apply to rent the OriHime robot are individuals who experience restraints on movement due to designated intractable diseases, specific pediatric chronic diseases, or special chronic diseases designated under a project that covers parts of patients' medical expenses using public funds. The rental period is for two weeks in principle, and mobile Wi-Fi routers and other devices can also be rented. For more inquiries, please call the Tokushima Prefectural Government's health division at 088-621-2224 (in Japanese).

    (Japanese original by Ayane Matsuyama, Tokushima Bureau)

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