MHCI Students Finalists in ACM SIGCHI 2017 Design Competition

May 3, 2017
Robin Logo

In any given day, how many actions or activities do you complete without pausing to think? Whether it's remembering each step to make a cup of coffee or remembering each turn on your daily commute, successfully navigating our daily routines is an accomplishment we often don't think twice about. That is, until these steps become harder to remember.

A team of students from Carnegie Mellon University is developing a product for people suffering from dementia. One forgotten step can derail a routine they may have completed effortlessly before. This team of students in the Master of Human-Computer Interaction program saw an opportunity to use technology and their exposure to innovative research at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute, to design Robin, a voice-assistant for people with cognitive disabilities.

The idea grew from this year's ACM SIGCHI Student Design Competition, which asked students to use technology to level the playing field. 

"We knew we wanted to participate somehow," said Meg Nidever, who previously worked as a program manager for Dropbox. The CHI prompt spoke to one of her core values and a motivator to change careers: bringing life-changing technology to minority groups.

These are the people who stand to benefit from our leaps in technology, Nidever explained.

Clare Carroll, a team member of Nidever's, echoed these sentiments. Though she was working in emerging technology, her field of interest, prior to coming to Carnegie Mellon, she felt unsatisfied knowing her efforts were advancing products that were luxuries, not necessities.

"I'd ask myself if my work was fundamentally helping someone, and I'd have to answer no," said Carroll. She sought out the MHCI program as a way to have a bigger say in the types of products that emerging technology can be applied to and who can actually benefits from them.

Together with Catherine Chiodo, Adena Lin and Jayanth Prathipati, the student team created their solution, Robin: A Means to enabling Independence for Individuals with Cognitive Disabilities Using Voice Assistive Technology.

Robin is a customizable task and routine management platform that can partner with existing voice recognition software like Amazon Alexa. Her purpose is to support people with early-stage dementia live independently by providing routine and task-related audio prompting.

"There is no one-size fits all solution," said Nidever of dementia. "We quickly learned that any solution had to be customizable for it provide value."

After conducting research with dementia patients, caregivers and physicians (including Chiodo's mother, a palliative care physician), they decided to focus their solution on task-specific reminders.

"People would get stuck on unpredictable steps in their routine," said Nidever.

The team's research showed that dementia can cause people to stumble on one step in a routine, detailing the entire process. Using technology available today, the team developed a solution that supported caregivers and patients by providing task help or reminders. Doing so, they believe, will allow people with dementia more independence and the ability to stay in their own homes.

"When you take people out of their familiar environment, they almost always decline," said Dr. Laura Chiodo.

The MHCI student team designed Robin to be customizable for each user's daily routines and allows users or their care partners to create step-by-step directions that Robin can provide when needed.

"Alexa, ask Robin to help me make coffee," a user in the student video asks. Alexa easily communicates Robin's useful instructions. "OK, first you turn on the coffee maker by tapping the small blue dot on the screen," Robin's instructions dictate. "Next, you wait for it to warm up. You'll know it's done when the screen shows the time."

All of this is meant to help patients with dementia maintain independence and stay in their homes longer. The goal is not to replace caregivers, the students assured, but to use the innovative technology entering the market to improve the independence and quality of life for patients whose health can depend on keeping them in their homes and with their normal routines.

"This project wouldn't have existed if not for talking to real humans with real problems. It grew out of the core values of this program. A lot of technology doesn't start this way," Carroll said.

"We'll see what happens next," said Nidever. "Either way, I'm just thrilled. There were 70 teams to submit, and we are one of 12 accepted. It feels great no matter what happens from here."

The team of MHCI students will be one of twelve final students teams to compete in Denver, Colo. May 6-11, 2017. Learn more about the MHCI program and wish them luck!