'My Special Aflac Duck' is a robot to help kids with cancer

One of the best gadgets at CES is a robot duck that will bring a tear to your eye and capture your heart.

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Patrick Holland has been a phone reviewer for CNET since 2016. He is a former theater director who occasionally makes short films. Patrick has an eye for photography and a passion for everything mobile. He is a colorful raconteur who will guide you through the ever-changing, fast-paced world of phones, especially the iPhone and iOS. He used to co-host CNET's I'm So Obsessed podcast and interviewed guests like Jeff Goldblum, Alfre Woodard, Stephen Merchant, Sam Jay, Edgar Wright and Roy Wood Jr.
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Patrick Holland
2 min read

My Special Aflac Duck won the 2018 CES Tech For A Better World Award.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

At CES it's impossible not to see a robot . There are robots that walk, ones that pour coffee and even one that is a suitcase designed to follow you. But there is one that stands above the rest, or rather under the rest -- about knee height. It's a social robot duck designed to help children facing cancer. It's called My Special Aflac Duck.

Aflac is widely known for its zany commercials especially those with a duck that quacks the company's name. The insurance company also has a long history of supporting families facing childhood cancer and have spent over $120 million toward the cause.

Aflac approached the health and research company Sproutel which made Jerry The Bear -- a comfort companion robot for kids with type-1 diabetes. The two companies sought to design a robotic comfort toy to help kids being treated for cancer.

A closer look at how a robot duck comforts kids with cancer

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Sproutel spent a year exploring the journey that children, families and medical professionals take as kids face cancer and chemotherapy. Those studies and insights informed both the hardware and behavior design of My Special Aflac Duck. It's part toy, part robot and part medical device.

Watch this: Adorable 'My Special Aflac Duck' helps kids facing cancer

It has sensors that react to touch, a microphone and light sensor that adapt to different environments and adjust the duck's behavior. When you hold the duck, it is incredibly life-like with natural movements. It dances, nuzzles, and even has breath and heartbeat. When you tickle its sides it quacks happily and waggles its head. Oh, and it is also incredibly cuddly.

The adorable duck gives children control during a time when they seemingly have none. They become the duck's caretaker and can feed and bathe the duck as well as have it mirror their health care routines and even receive chemotherapy.

On the chest of the duck is a glowing E.T.-like light where kids can place one of several RFID-enabled "feeler cards" that have different emojis on them. Kids decide how the duck is feeling which is usually a reflection of how they feel. When a sad card is touched to the duck's chest, the duck droops its head and quacks sadly. A happy card makes the duck quack cheerfully and dance.


My Special Aflac Duck can receive chemotherapy making the treatment less frighting for kids.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The same chest sensor has a chemotherapy PICC line attachment which lets kids witness their friend go through the same treatment as them.

Each duck costs approximately $200 (around £150, AU$255), but Aflac will donate these robot companions at no cost to any children newly diagnosed with cancer.

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