One of the biggest and most biting criticism of modern tech is the industry’s excessive push to solve trivial problems. Nowhere is this theme more apparent than among the sea of forgettable gadgets at CES, itself a trade show that revels in the opulence of Las Vegas and the often hollow promise of our techno-enabled future. Occasionally, there is a device that breaks the mold. Leka, a smart toy from a French startup of the same name, is a tiny spherical robot not unlike Star Wars’ BB-8. Instead of dazzling us with cheap tricks, Leka has a purpose: to help children with autism and other developmental disabilities better learn and communicate with others.
The device, shown off yesterday at CES, is aimed at schools and therapy institutions that focus on autism and other conditions. It’s designed to either be controlled by a caregiver or put into an autonomous state so children of any ages — and even adults with more severe disabilities — can overcome social barriers to learn and progress at their own pace. Because these children often have trouble interacting with others, taking social cues, and learning in traditional environments, toys like Leka help to act as a intermediary. In other words, it’s a robot friend that a child with autism can better develop a bond with than an imposing adult.
Leka lights up with colorful LEDs, plays music and chirps in anthropomorphic fashion, and emits subtle vibrations. It contains a screen as well, which shows various facial expressions and can also be used to display photos and videos. It’s main function, however, is playing educational games, and Leka can be customized to alter the amount of stimulation and the level of interaction for children with different needs.
Some of the games are as simple as asking a child to correctly identify an object or a color, while others focus on urging children to receive and act on social cues and interact with an adult overseeing the session. The toy, through repetitive action, is meant to become a dependable, safe anchor for those with disabilities to rely on and learn through.
Ladislas de Toldi, Leka’s co-founder and CEO, says toys aimed at improving cognitive development can cost thousands of dollars. So the company feels its price tag of about $700 to $800 is reasonable for parents who want to purchase it outright and not simply rely on one from a caregiving institution.
The company is also giving a discount to interested backers of its Indiegogo campaign. If you preorder now through the crowdfunding site, you can purchase Leka for $490. The company says it’s aiming to deliver the product by November of this year, though if you preorder today you won’t receive the device until February of 2018.