Meet Benni, the robot created by BYU students that could help kids with autism

(Evan Cobb | The Daily Herald) Cookie Riner, 2, speaks to Benni, a robot designed for children on the autism spectrum, at her family's home Friday, July 13, 2018, in Draper, Utah.

Provo • A group of Brigham Young University students wants Benni to be a child with autism’s best friend.

"We often say we want Benni to be the first friend of many friends to come," said Jared Workman, a BYU student and founder of Early Intervention Robotics, or EI Robotics.

Benni — recently renamed from Nelli — is the company’s first product. The robot looks similar to BB-8 from “Star Wars” and is designed to supplement therapy for children on the autism spectrum.

Benni isn’t the tallest robot around. He’s 14 inches tall, rolls around and can get bored and mad if a child ignores him.

The robot is like a large Tamagotchi and plays educational games with children. The robot works with an app, can be driven around and is designed to be able to be used without a parent.

“The goal is the child learns interdependent play, asking and answering questions, and develops empathy,” Workman said.

The Riner family watches as Jared Workman tests out Benni, a robot designed to interact with children on the autism spectrum, at the Riner family home in Draper, Friday, July 13, 2018. (Evan Cobb/The Daily Herald via AP)

Workman began thinking about a robot that could help children with autism after speaking with his father about ways to get his young nieces and nephews active and after meeting with professors and hearing that many children have disabilities.

He started working with a friend, Grant Hagen, who was working on robots.

The project is funded by BYU’s Ballard Center for Economic Self-Reliance’s Social Venture Academy.

The team has been working on the robot for about a year and has recently launched it into four test homes. The team plans to launch a crowdfunding campaign for the robot in the fall.

So far, the test families have responded that their children are connecting with the robot.

“The kids often treat Benni as if he’s real, and that is really important for us,” Workman said.

The robot isn’t meant to replace therapy but provide a way for children to continue to learn when a therapist isn’t around.

“It is such a great device that can help kids engage in their surroundings and with their family and friends,” said Kaylee Christensen, a BYU student pursuing a master’s degree in special education.

Christensen works with children on the autism spectrum and is involved on the therapy side of the project.

She said parents are eager to test the robot out. The robot’s games teach the children how to play with friends, or it urges children to speak to it so the robot will dance.

The goal is for Benni to teach children the skills they need through play.

“We want it to be fun, and we want them to be motivated to play with the robot and show it to their friends,” Christensen said.

The team wants the robot to be affordable when it goes on the market. The students have considered doing a subscription model and building an app so those who can’t afford it can interact with a virtual Benni.