On October 9, professors Atsuo Takanishi of Waseda University and Akitoshi Katsumata of Asahi University unveiled an oral rehabilitation robot, called "WAO-1" (Waseda Asahi Oral Rehabilitation Robot 1), which is designed to help treat mouth, jaw and facial disorders by performing therapeutic face massages. In November, the developers will begin clinical testing of a prototype robot -- built by dental X-ray equipment manufacturer Asahi Roentgen -- on patients in Yokohama.
Equipped with two 50-cm (20-inch) arms that protrude from a chair-sized aluminum box, WAO-1 performs massages by pressing the patient's face from both sides. Each arm's position and angle can be precisely controlled, as can the direction of the pressure applied to the face. WAO-1 also relies on a complex system of software and fuses to ensure the pressure does not exceed a certain level, and it is equipped with a "torque limiter function" that allows the arms to bend back should the robot begin to exert too much force. Much of WAO-1's control technology, which can also be found in humanoid robots, is the product of Takanishi's well-known work on robots that walk and express emotions.
While the parts for the prototype cost about 8 million yen ($70,000), Takanishi says the robot is cost-effective because it can be used to massage other body parts and perform other tasks like hold a patient's mouth open during treatment.
Facial massage, which is known to combat dry mouth because it stimulates salivation, is used in the treatment of various mouth and jaw disorders. An estimated 10 million people in Japan are believed to suffer from oral conditions such as dry mouth and temporomandibular joint disorder -- a condition that makes it painful to open the mouth, which is sometimes caused by stress or age. WAO-1's creators, who are confident they can develop a commercial version soon, hope the robot can take advantage of the lack of skilled practitioners in this high-growth area.