Meet Emma, the robotic masseuse

Oct. 20, 2017
by Mark Ollig

The next time you’re enjoying a relaxing, tension-relieving back massage, you may be thanking Emma.

The Expert Manipulative Massage Automation – also known as Emma – is a technologically-advanced robotic arm equipped with a soft, silicone, human-mimicking palm and thumb used for giving massages.

Emma is programmed for the traditional Chinese therapeutic massage called “Tuina.”

This robotic massaging system uses propriety cloud software intelligence supported by Microsoft and developed by Albert Zhang, founder of AiTreat and NovaHealth Clinic.

He and his colleagues won Microsoft’s 2016 Developer Day Start-up Challenge with the software developed and used with the Emma system.

Emma is equipped with advanced electronic sensors and diagnostic functions, which precisely measure the exact stiffness of a particular muscle or tendon.

The robotic arm’s hand palm and thumb are warmed; so you needn’t worry about any cold hands on your back.

Data collected about a patient is transmitted to a computer server located inside the internet cloud. There, an artificial intelligence (AI) software program quickly computes the exact pressure to be delivered by Emma during the massage session.

The Emma system is linked to the AI program and continuously tracks and analyzes the progress of the patient being given the robotic massage.

A performance report is generated by one of the AI programs monitoring the individual patient’s muscle condition after Emma finishes its therapeutic massage. A human therapist/physician reads and evaluates this report.

Zhang, who oversaw Emma’s development at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said this massage robotic system can also address the labor shortage and issues of quality consistency within the healthcare industry.

“Emma is designed to deliver a clinically-precise massage according to the prescription of a qualified traditional Chinese medicine physician or physiotherapist, without the fatigue faced by a human therapist,” said Zhang.

The normal cost for a therapeutic consultation, acupuncture, and a 20-minute low-back pain massage would be around $150; however, by using Emma to perform the massage segment of a patient’s treatment, the cost can be reduced to $68, according to Zhang.

The NovaHealth Traditional Chinese Medicine Clinic, staffed by three people, has seen its productivity increase to that equaling five people since Emma began working there.

The clinic installed Emma in a modified patient room with two massage beds. Located in-between the beds, Emma massages one patient, while a human therapist performs other treatments such as acupuncture on the second patient.

Once the human therapist completes their treatment, Emma can then perform the individually-specified deep-tissue massage therapy session for the patient.

This arrangement ensures Emma is always working on a patient, and maximizes the productivity of the clinic.

Zhang hopes Emma can become a business model example for other clinics to follow in the future.

“We are proud to have guided Mr. Albert Zhang in his vision to bring affordable healthcare solutions to the market for Singapore, which can alleviate some of the chronic pain problems which our elderly face,” said Dr. Lim Jui, chief executive officer of Nanyang Technological University.

It is anticipated Emma will be used as a low-cost treatment alternative in countries where healthcare costs are high; especially those with an aging population, where a growing demand for chronic pain management treatment is needed.

The Emma system was funded through an incubator program called AiTreat, which is supported by investments from Singapore, China, and the US; specifically, Brain Robotics Capital LP located in Boston, MA.

This joint research project was proposed by Zhang, and Dr. Goh Chye Tee, director of Nanyang Technological University’s Chinese Medicine Clinic, and director of biomedical sciences and Chinese medicine double degree program.

For more information about Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, visit its website at www.ntu.edu.sg.

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