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Collaborative Design-and-Engineering Efforts at the University of Cincinnati Tap into Elder Needs
posted 03.26.2014

This article is the third in a series of three columns on aging and technology. See the Nov.–Dec. 2013 and Jan.–Feb. 2014 issues of Aging Today for stories on high-tech connections between generations and empathic design.

By Kate Finn

Seeking to revise the way products and services are designed for an aging population, in 2007 the University of Cincinnati (UC) and Procter & Gamble formed the nonprofit LiveWell Collaborative. A number of LiveWell’s clients, such as AARP, Citibank, General Mills and LG, partner with UC students in a design-brainstorming process.

Since its inception, the concept has spread across the UC campus, resulting in at least 11 “Collaboratories,” which include students and faculty from nursing, design, engineering and computer science fields. Industrial design and nursing students have tackled assistive mobility and head injury protection, and nursing and engineering students are working on fall detection, robotics, exoskeletons and the mind-computer interface. Some amazing research has come out of these collaborations.

Robotics Help with Movement

Although he made a full recovery, a motorcycle accident caused severe enough injuries to keep Gaurav Mukherjee immobilized for some time. This experience, plus conversations with others who had mobility disorders, made him wonder: “How can we use our bodies more efficiently to overcome movement-related disabilities?”

UC has provided the 26-year-old mechanical engineering student with encouragement and the facilities to explore this question, which resulted in a spring-assisted leg exoskeleton to help people transition from sitting to standing.

As Mukherjee explains it, the current version of the device is like a coiled spring, but attached to the person’s legs. When you sit, the energy is stored in the spring, locking the system into place. Through “passive energy harvesting,” controlled release of the stored energy can provide help standing up. Because more energy is required to stand up than is saved while sitting down, it is a gentle boost, and will not eject you out of your chair.

During his graduate work under Drs. Grant Schaffner and Manish Kumar, Mukherjee collaborated with faculty and students from his department, as well as from the departments of Aerospace Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Computing Systems, and the College of Nursing. 

He also visited Maple Knoll Village, a continuing care retirement community in nearby Springdale, where residents explained the features they needed in a sit-stand device. They wanted something that would be easy to put on and take off, especially for those with arthritic joints. They were concerned about the “robotic” aspect of the device, and wanted to be sure that they, the users, were in control at all times.

Mukherjee realized the design process had to be very specific to the end users, which taught him to be more “tactical” about the systems he hopes to build: no matter how cool they are, the systems are worthless if people can’t (or won’t) use them. As he progresses with his design, Mukherjee will focus on how to better integrate the person with the machine. For example, what if you could make yourself stand up by simply thinking about standing up?

Shikha Chaganti, a master’s student in computer science, is working on the brain-computer interface under Professor Anca Ralescu, and is collaborating with Mukherjee. Placing electrodes on a participant’s scalp and having them think about standing up, or sitting down, Chaganti measures the electrical impulses in their brain. Analyzing the data allows researchers to identify which areas of the brain are involved in the “stand up” thought, and which are active during the “sit down” thought.

The hope is to eventually merge such research with exoskeletons, or other such devices, to help anyone with mobility impairments from stroke, traumatic brain injury or age-related disabilities.

Coming Soon, the Health Ed Robot

Nursing student Stephanie Grabo’s project explored how well residents of the Maple Knoll Village would respond to a telehealth robot. The robot, from VGo, can deliver health education via a screen on which residents can see a health educator in another location, or possibly a doctor or expert at a very large facility, even in another city. The remote expert could send the local robot to a meeting place or a patient’s room if they were immobile. The robot also has a built-in camera, allowing the remote educator to view their audience and hear comments. The remote health educator can control the robot, moving the VGo robot to a designated meeting room, rotating it to focus on individuals in the audience and adjusting volume.

In the trial run, participating residents learned about disease prevention and health promotion or stress, all topics developed by nursing students. Grabo’s research found residents retained the VGo robot–delivered health information at a level comparable to health information delivered in person. Residents also rated the VGo robot highly on several measures, including their overall satisfaction with the experience.

Such findings bode well for future telehealth efforts, which might provide specialized medical care and education to patients in isolated or rural areas, or to those who are unable to travel to their healthcare providers. This is likely to include a significant number of older adults, who are often less comfortable with technology than are their younger counterparts. Ensuring that this cohort will accept robotic technology is a crucial first step.

Grabo collaborated with two nursing students and an undergraduate robotics student, with lots of help from the IT staff. She says they all learned how to work outside their respective scopes: the engineers explained how the technology worked, and the nursing students could say, “… and this is how it would work with a patient.”


UC’s collaborative course called Design+Nursing has served as a meeting of the minds for industrial design and nursing students. Run by faculty members Roberta Lee and Steven Doehler, the course operates with varied expectations and objectives for its two student populations.

Course professors assign a broad topic, such as assistive mobility, and suggest several sub-topics; the students choose their topics. It’s all centered on “design thinking”: identifying issues, doing background research, conceptualizing solutions, and an iterative cycle of prototyping, assessing and feedback. The design students work in teams, then split up to work on product concepts with the help of nursing students. The nursing students help connect them to stakeholders, and supply missing medical and community-health knowledge. Students role-play to develop empathy for their user population.

Sometimes, logistics can be challenging, so to foster closer collaboration, they develop photo storybooks for each project to capture ideas, communication and development. “Crossing the barriers allowed us to realize just how close our two fields [engineering and nursing] can really be,” said one design student.

At the term’s end, there is a student showcase of all projects, and students are encouraged to enter design competitions sponsored by UC and other organizations. Corporations and venture capital groups have taken note of several collaboratively designed products.

Kate Finn is CEO of Wiser Usability, Inc., in the San Francisco Bay Area. It is a consultancy that evaluates websites and other user interfaces to make them more age-friendly.

Editor’s Note: This article appears in the March/April 2014 issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store.

Image Courtesy University of Cincinnati College of Nursing: Chris Edwards, University of Cincinnati College of Nursing's assistant dean for information technology and communications and director of the Center for Academic Technology and Educational Resources, demonstrates the VGo robot's capabilities at the UV Innovation Collaboratory House on-site at Maple Knoll Village

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