It’s easy to feel jaded at an event like CES where there are countless of tech companies claiming to have the smartest and most innovative products that are, in reality, just expensive and useless eye candy. So it was heartwarming when we came across a robotic toy duck designed to help children diagnosed with cancer cope through their treatments.
The toy is a partnership between Aflac and robotics toy company Sproutel. It’s called My Special Aflac Duck, and it has five touch sensors along its cheeks, under the wings, and back. Kids can pet and snuggle with it, and the duck will cuddle back or cheerfully quack in response. It also comes with an accessory bag full of RFID tags. Kids can tap any one of the emoji discs to the duck’s chest to express how they’re feeling that day, and the duck will emulate it with a happy chirp or painful groan. Sproutel CEO Aaron Horowitz tells me the goal is to help children feel like they’re not alone in the process, with the duck mirroring their own emotions.
The accessory bag also has an IV set for kids to simulate administering medication to the duck to help them feel less scared about chemotherapy. This helps reverse the child’s role from a patient to a caretaker, giving them control of their mood and experience. The duck’s fur shell also comes off so kids can wash and keep the duck clean from hospital germs and bacteria. When My Special Aflac Duck is in IV mode, the duck’s head will begin to make gentle heartbeat-like pulses to calm children down and focus on steady breathing exercises.
The last RFID accessory is a rocket ship. The duck pairs with an app via Bluetooth to let kids pick their happy place — an amusement park, a rainforest, a garden, to name a few — and once the rocket is tapped to the duck, it will play a soundscape of that scene to virtually “transport” kids out of the hospital room. Our demo duck had a rainforest scene set up, and it sounded like a peaceful noise machine designed to help people relax and sleep.
Aflac says it reached out to Sproutel to create the duck after seeing the company’s first product, Jerry the Bear. The toy bear was designed to help children with Type 1 diabetes learn how to check and monitor their blood sugar and know when it’s time for a shot of insulin. Sproutel even got to show off the bear to President Obama in 2015 when the White House held its first and only demo day.
What I appreciate most about the Aflac robot duck is its minimalism, at least by CES standards. By marketing definition, the duck isn’t technically “smart.” There’s no integrated voice assistant, you can’t play games with it, there’s no camera — but all of that actually make the duck feel smarter than other gadgets with way too many features. The duck does just enough to comfort children during a difficult time.
My Special Aflac Duck won’t be commercially available. Aflac says it’s committed to provide the duck for free to children diagnosed with cancer across the nation. It will first give the toy to young patients at its Atlanta-based cancer treatment center, with goals of partnering with more cancer support programs and hospitals to get the duck to thousands of families by the end of 2018.