Rocking Chair prototype

A Therapeutic Rocking Chair

Following on from our pop-up exhibition of audio stories, produced from our winter visit to the MShed (see Memories and Museums) we have been developing another auditory experience using chairs, and inspiration drawn from venturing outdoors. Here I introduce the concept of a therapeutic rocking chair for older people with dementia.

Early on in the Tangible Memories project, we recognised that access to the outdoors, and specifically to the natural world, was very limited for many care home residents, often due to a decline in their physical mobility, or particularly if they were suffering from the more advanced stages of dementia. Equally, when we asked ourselves as a team, ‘what would we want in a care home of the future?’, we identified the simple routine of being able to go outside and experience the elements as something that would be of great importance to us all.

So throughout the project, we have been seeking different ways to incorporate aspects of life outside the care home environment into our technologies and prototypes, for those who are not able to venture out independently, or as often as they might like.

To begin with, we explored virtual travel using the Oculus Rift VR headset (see Virtual Reality Storytelling), with 360˚ stitched photographs of local places and museums:

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Example of one of the 360˚ photographs for use in the Oculus Rift headset. The technology provides an opportunity for virtual visits to museums and other local places.

We also offered VR experiences using moving imagery, sending residents to a virtual Tuscan villa, up in a hot air balloon, and even into the solar system on an animated space journey. Closer to home, we had previously recorded a kind of video postcard that reflects on the beauty of springtime in the countryside:

In this short film, as we focused on the many calming and uplifting effects of nature, such as birdsong or the sound of a river, we felt that adopting such a therapeutic approach would be particularly beneficial to residents living in the specialist dementia care home. Anxiety, agitation and memory loss are recurring symptoms of advanced dementia, so rather than placing the onus on an individual to remember past realities, we wondered whether it would prove more positive to provide an evocative soundscape of the natural world, without visual stimuli, where a person’s imagination could wander freely, and enjoy fact or fiction, in a peaceful listening experience.

With this in mind, the concept of a therapeutic rocking chair evolved, and was partly in response to Pete Bennett’s brilliant Resonant Bits harmonic user interface. This app triggers sound content on an iPhone or an iPad using a kind of rocking movement from simple subtle gestures and a slow meditative motion response. In his research, Pete asks:

How can interfaces support slow and meditative interaction in a fast paced world?  How would it feel to be able to ‘tune in’ and interact directly with digital ‘bits’ of data?

Thinking about the meditative field recordings that I had already captured from nature, and wanting to combine these with Pete’s app to create a calming user experience and interaction, the traditional rocking chair seemed like an appropriate medium for a therapeutic listening experience, simply by embedding some speakers in the headrests. Rocking chairs can be a familiar item of furniture for many older people, the type of chair which provides an opportunity to dwell, ponder and relax, with its motion considered to be very comforting. (Perhaps why babies and young children are typically rocked to sleep).

In essence, this therapeutic rocking chair would play calming, comforting sound content triggered by the rocking motion. The soundscapes of nature, poetry or music would fade away and change track as the rocking motion stops and starts again, making the interaction as simple and intuitive as possible. (The chair would be silent when it was not moving). Here’s a quick demo, using just the app on an iPhone:

The rocking chair would offer this spontaneous and relaxing listening experience through hidden stereo speakers in the headrests, connected to the Harmonic User Interface app on an iPhone.

Alongside this concept development, what a bonus it was to discover a medical study published in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementias which cites the psychosocial and physical benefits for dementia patients who regularly rock in a platform rocking chair:

Rocking therapy study - cover page

Read the findings online here: Rocking chair therapy

The US study used traditional platform rocking chairs and their rocking motion alone as a form of therapy, which researchers found could improve balance, muscle tone, emotional well-being, and resulted in a reduction in the number of requests for medication to treat aches and pains in the majority of older people they tested.

If such results could be achieved with support and persistence, using a traditional piece of furniture, what more might we be able to offer residents by embedding therapeutic sounds triggered by the rocking motion? One of our key aims on the Tangible Memories project is to develop assistive technologies that enhance the social, personal and emotional well-being of older people, in addition to addressing their physical needs.

So I set to work, hacking an existing platform rocking chair in order to integrate stereo speakers into the headrests and create a quick iteration of our initial prototype so we could test the idea and get it working:

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Hackspace: DIY table of tools for adapting an existing platform rocking chair to incorporate stereo speakers
Rocking Chair prototype
Speakers fitted into the headrests of the rocking chair, visible from the back only. In future prototypes, these speakers would be completely hidden.

The next step required uploading an adapted version of Pete’s Harmonic User Interface app (currently called ‘SoundChair’) to my iPhone and then adding the sound content via iTunes.

SoundChair icon-02
SoundChair icon

The app can play any m4a, mp3 or aac file which is triggered by the rocking movement.

In addition to the sounds of nature, I’ve added other content known to be beneficial for dementia patients, which includes the rhythmic repetition of poetry, as well as classical music. Here are a few examples to give a flavour:

‘Sailing By’, Radio 4 shipping forecast theme:

The sound of waves on the seashore:

‘The Daffodils’ by William Wordsworth:

Next, the speakers were crudely connected to a battery power pack and my iPhone….

Rocking Chair prototype

…..and we’re ready to test it out!