A robotic system that plays a game – specifically tic-tac-toe – with disabled patients undergoing rehabilitation has been proven effective in improving their real-life task performance.Researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, who recently published their work in Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience, have developed the first-ever social robot to help rehabilitate the disabled. It is a new field and still requires much research and experimentation to determine the optimal conditions.The interdisciplinary research team designed a game with a robotic arm to simulate 3D Functional Activities of Daily Living – actions people undertake daily, like drinking from a cup, that are often the focus of rehabilitation.“Playing a game of tic-tac-toe with a set of cups (instead of X’s and O’s) is therefore one example of a game that can help rehabilitate the upper limbs – people pick up and place many cups in the process of the game and improve their performance on the task while enjoying the game,” explained Dr. Shelly Levy-Tzedek of BGU’s physical therapy department and the Zlotowski Center for Neuroscience, who is the study’s senior author.The research was carried out under her supervision by postdoctoral student Dr. Danny Eizicovits, with cooperation from Prof. Yael Edan of the industrial engineering and management department and Prof. Iris Tabak of the education department.To test whether it is important to have an actual physical robot interact with the users during the game, the researchers compared the participants’ motivation to play with the robot vs. a set of computer-controlled LED lights.The system was tested on 62 healthy, right-handed people from two age groups – 40 young adults around 25 years old (23 women and 17 men) and 22 older adults around 75 years old (10 women and 12 men). Both groups preferred the robotic system over the LED lights system. The older adults said overall it was more humanlike, while the young adults overall reported the robot “was more interesting, fun and appealing.”When asked which partner they would prefer to play two additional games with, both groups selected the robotic system over the lights. However, when asked to play 10 additional games, the older adults still preferred the robot, but the young group preferred to play against the LED lights system.“Some of the young adults complained that the robot moved too slowly, so they preferred the quicker system when asked to play many more games,” noted Levy-Tzedek. “That suggests the speed of the robot should be personalized to each participant.”An unexpected finding was the priming of the human movement by the robotic movement. Both younger and older adults moved significantly slower when they played with the slower robot, compared to when they played with the faster lighting system.The results indicate that people are willing to continue to interact with a robotic device in a social-like setting and that embodiment plays an important role, which is a positive sign for the future of such systems. The researchers recommend testing their system on rehabilitating stroke victims, now that they have established its feasibility.