Which Lego face do you most feel like? Photo / SuppliedWhich Lego face do you most feel like? Photo / Supplied

They've been a little yellow mainstay in play-pens for generations, but could Lego minifigures also soon have a place in therapy clinics?

Researchers at University of Canterbury's Human Interface Technology Lab have proposed just that after a study used the faces of 30 Lego Minifigures as a new kind of scale for therapists or clinicians to pin-point the emotions of young children, or those with conditions that hindered their communication skills.

Six sets of faces, ranging from weakly to intensely displayed emotions, were picked to correspond with the traditionally used Likert scale, which asked the subjects to rank the intensity of their feelings in six emotions - anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise.

Anger, for example, was illustrated on the plastic faces ranging from a clean-shaven Lego minifigures appearing slightly grumpy, to another in a rage, bearing clenched teeth and stubble.

Over two different studies, participants were shown a pair of different pictorial scales using the Lego faces, and then their traditional Likert equivalent.

The results were promising enough for the researchers to suggest the figurines could be a valuable new measurement tool for mental and other health assessments, particularly where children were involved.

They noted the Lego minifigures could let children express their emotions more easily, as they typically identified themselves with dolls, and had specific potential to assess those with communication disorders like autism, Asperger's syndrome and attention deficit hyper-activity disorder.

The study, which has been accepted for publication in a scientific journal and had no input from the toy giant, said more tests were required.

The lab's director, Associate Professor Christoph Bartneck, said the findings had been shared with the university's Department of Communications Disorders.

As his team had hundreds of different figurines to choose from, it wasn't hard finding a set that matched the Likert scale. "But this study was something that took us a little bit of time to accomplish, simply because it kind of falls between the cracks of research areas."

While the Lego faces were still to be truly tested in a clinical setting, he believed the concept was "definitely a way forward".

Victoria University psychology lecturer Dr Marc Wilson responded with interest to the approach, saying the method "didn't sound like a dumb idea at all".

In fact, he said, there was now a drive in psychology to identify toys and technology that could facilitate social understanding and emotional awareness.

"Given the drive at the moment, I imagine it's not outside the realms of possibility that this might be useful but as with any tool, it's how it is used that would be the trick."

The new research builds on previous work on Lego at the lab, including an analysis of more than 6000 Mini-figures that concluded Lego faces had become angrier. Research under way is looking at whether Lego has become more violent.

 

If these bricks could talk...

 

Over decades, we've used Lego figurines and robots to fly toy planes, drive toy cars and sail toy pirate ships.

But how about having a conversation with one?

TRE - or The Robot Engine - is a Lego robot built in a joint project between the University of Canterbury's Human Interface Technology Laboratory and Japan's Osaka University.

One of TRE's architects, Japanese Masters student Shogo Nishiguchi, said TRE was the result of a new approach to animating robots and then programming their interaction with users.

It could dance, move and even sing - but its most impressive feature was its ability to communicate with the user.

"You can write the script for a conversation virtually on TRE and the robot will talk accordingly," he said.

"However, it is almost impossible to write down all the possible questions and answers, as people sometimes give a random question that is out of context to the robot."

To solve the problem, his team embedded a function, called Chatbot, which is an online database of conversation, and gives proper answers to questions.

"The advantage of scripting is that the conversation is heading to a goal set by the user. On the other hand, Chatbot can answer any random questions. TRE makes use of both advantages."

"The robot normally talks along the script with the user but if people ask it something unexpected, it connects to Chatbot to answer it."

The Lego robot has already made an appearance at Christchurch's Imagination Station, a charity run, not-for-profit play and education centre and the first LEGO play and learn centre in New Zealand.

Watch a video about the robot:

NZ Herald by Jamie Morton http://www.nzherald.co.nz/lifestyle/news/article.cfm?c_id=6&objectid=11460068