Can't get your hands on a real otter? The next best thing might be Ollie, a baby-sized robotic otter with plush fur that responds to your touch with purrs and pleasant sounds.
Ollie's true purpose isn't to delight otter lovers (that's just an added benefit) but to help patients suffering from ailments like cancer or depression. Petting an animal has been shown to have a variety of benefits, including improving a patient's mood or decreasing loneliness. Unfortunately, a live animal is not always the right choice for every patient, so there needs to be an alternative. And that's where Ollie comes in.
Equipped with a Raspberry Pi for a brain and sensors to detect how it's being held, the "robotter" can simulate a living, breathing animal. It has a waterproof cover over its robotic parts and the fur is washable. It was built by a team of MIT students for the course 2.009 (Product Engineering Processes) who had read up on the benefits of Assisted Pet Therapy. As seen in their presentation, the robot reacts to touch and behaves like an affectionate animal. The prototype cost about $500 to make, but they estimate the machine can be built for as little as $90 if mass-produced.
There are other therapy robots on the market, but none are quite so affordable. The Japanese robotic seal Paro, for example, costs about $6000. Ollie aims to be a more practical choice for consumers.
In order to avoid making the product too creepy, the creators decided to make an otter, as opposed to a cat or dog. Similar to Paro the seal, we don't often interact with otters, so the robot doesn't fall into the Uncanny Valley.
So far there is no word what the future of Ollie is, but hopefully it will be able to help those in need of a friend shortly.