“Communication Stick” is a new stick that connects care workers and the elderly at nursing homes. Its functions are: sending text messages from speech, reading out received text messages, and notifying location information when stumbling. These functions support safety for elders to go outside homes.
We visited nursing homes in order to do market research about the elderly. Care workers and therapists wished for elders to have more opportunities to go outside to improve their own mental and physical health, but feared that the elders would get lost or injured by stumbling. The elderly were also pessimistic about going outside due their decline in physical performances. Therefore we came up with an idea that if a mobility aid device would be a tool for interactive communication between care workers and the elderly, it would help increase opportunities for the elderly to go outside.
1. Sending text messages from speech
Function: Speech is converted into text data and sent to any mail address. Speech recognition activates when a button on the stick is being pressed. Releasing that button will send the message.
Mechanism: Audio detected from the USB microphone is converted into text data by Google Speech API. Linux mail command sends that data to any mail address.
2. Reading out received text messages
Function: Received text messages are read out by pressing the play button on the stick handle. Only the latest received message is played, a newly received message replaces the older.
Mechanism: Received text is converted into audio by Google TTS API. Audio is output from the Raspberry Pi, generating sound to the speaker.
3. Notifying location information when stumbling
Function: When the user stumbles a notice with location information is automatically sent to any mail address, allowing immediate care.
Mechanism: Impact caused by dropping the stick is measured by an accelerometer. GPS information is sent to any mail address. An algorithm divides normal use and when stumbling by two factors: falling time and impact force.
Getting lost and stumbling were the two fears care workers faced when elders were outside nursing homes. There was a need for a communication method between care workers and the elderly that could be used anytime outside. In general, mobile phones are used but not many elders own them and they may be lost. A product with simple usability and low risk of loss was needed.
We made two prototypes; a hardware prototype with communication functions and a design prototype to consider design and structure.
This prototype included Raspberry Pi, GPS, a USB microphone, a speaker, an amplifier module, a 9 –axis inertial motion sensor, and a USB 3G module. Combining these general commercial products easily built the function. Since open source software is used, one can add functions if necessary. So far, trials for sending text messages from speech are completed.
Since “Communication Stick” would require functions that common sticks possess (length adjustment, grip comfort, tensile strength, etc.), we studied size and structure by reverse engineering. Design and mechanical layout was considered by estimating component sizes needed for mass production. Earlier designs were made by polystyrene foam to study grip comfort and appearance. Late designs for structure trials were made by 3D printers.
Future tasks are to add other functions, to develop a circuit board for mass production, and to select material for the handle to improve grip comfort and simple usability.
Other companies have released GPS devices for the elderly in various shapes as the following:
FUJITSU GPS CANE
Comparing “Communication Stick” with the above existing products, there are two originalities.
1. Interactive communication system
Since the above existing location tracking devices are a one way communication tool, the elderly feel as if they are being monitored and are uncomfortable holding the device. On the other hand “Communication Stick” is an interactive device that supports communication needs from the elderly to care workers, as for example: I will be returning late, I am lost, etc. Moreover, location information is only sent when the user stumbles. Privacy also provides a comfortable product.
2. Open source hardware
Since “Communication Stick” is created by mostly open hardware and open sources, hacking the device is allowed. This idea is not seen in exiting products. For example, a pedometer function can be added to the original device. One can also add a sensor to measure body temperature and pulse rates. On-demand is possible, fulfilling care workers and elders’ needs.
Target Release Date: 2018
Target Sales: 8,500 per year (domestic) / 85,000 per year (international)
Expected Price: 200 USD
In order to release the product in 2018, brushing up the current prototype design into a production model is needed to create a mold. Developing a more accurate stumble detector is also required. In 2017, a year before the release, we will be searching for sponsors or partner companies and plan to perform demonstration tests to evaluate the product. We target our domestic sales at 8,500 per year which is 1% of 850 thousand, the quantity of sticks sold in Japan annually. In the future, we also plan to apply these functions to wheelchairs and walkers, which are also mobility aids as the stick.