Nature, technology and well-being: New funding awarded for rocking chair

Although the official timeline and AHRC funding for Tangible Memories has now drawn to a close, many of the team are still busy working with our Story Creator app in care homes, sharing our research through conferences and publications, and applying for funding to progress our work with older people, well-being and technology.

We are thrilled to share news that we have been awarded funding from University of Bristol’s Brigstow Institute to develop the Soundscape rocking chair and explore the use of technology in bringing the benefits of nature into healthcare settings.

For this phase of the project, we are really excited to be partnering with the BBC Natural History Unit to use their wildlife archives, and co-designing our prototypes with Brunelcare, the Teenage Cancer Trust and University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust.  

Some of the research questions that we will be asking include:
Can technology and/or nature enhance well-being while a person, relative or carer is in hospital, visiting hospital, or in long-term care? If so, how?
What are the differences between experience of real world nature and a digitally mediated experience of nature? Which is more beneficial in a healthcare setting?
What sound would you miss, if you could no longer hear it? 

Our partners: 
BBC Natural History Unit
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Robots, research & rocking chairs: Computer-Human Interaction conference 2016

‘CHI’ Computer-Human Interaction conference, San Jose, California: 7th – 12th May 2016

convention-center

The annual CHI conference (pronounced ‘kai’) for Computer Human Interaction describes itself as ‘a place to see, discuss and learn about the future of how people interact with technology’. So on journeying to fabled Silicon Valley for my first experience of CHI and of San Jose California, I half-expected to be greeted by robots on arrival. As it turned out, I was not to be disappointed…

The theme of CHI 2016 focused on using ‘technology for good’, which resonated with my key reason for attending this year’s event. Over the past couple of years, I have been part of this collaborative research project called Tangible Memories, which has developed creative technologies to benefit older people in care. One of these technologies has included an interactive rocking chair for older people with advanced dementia, and who are not often able to go outdoors. The chair plays soothing nature sounds, such as the dawn chorus or crickets singing on a summer’s evening, through speakers embedded in its headrest.

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The sound content is triggered simply by the rocking motion of the chair; stop rocking and the sound softly dies away. Our aim was to design an intuitive interaction that did not require learning (or remembering) while providing an experience that was both calming, particularly for those with anxiety, and which could potentially enhance the well-being of the individual, by the soothing rocking motion and by rekindling the imagination through evocative soundscapes.

My colleagues and I had co-written a work-in-progress paper about this prototype and its test sessions that had been accepted into CHI 2016, so offering us the chance to share our research in person, with a specialist network of about three thousand conference delegates from all over the world. The opportunity represented a new prospect for my artistic practice, as well as occasion to receive valuable feedback on our concept, so I was delighted to be awarded a travel bursary from a-n The Artist Information Company in order to attend CHI 2016 as a freelance collaborator on this project, and to be able to accompany my colleagues from the University of Bristol Computer Science department.

Alongside two days of the conference where we presented our rocking chair research, there was a huge amount on offer throughout the conference programme. I enjoyed a group tour of Stanford University Design School in Palo Alto, and took part in a brilliant prototyping workshop hosted by a member of the School’s teaching staff there.

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This Open House event was also showcasing a number of Stanford’s collaborative projects through posters and demonstrations, which proved very intriguing and thought-provoking. Some teams were hypothesizing about the future, such as our increasingly close (even emotional) relationship with robots and drones, while others were in the process of developing new creative tools for education or entertainment.

Back in the San Jose Convention Center, I attended a Special Interest Group discussion that was reflecting on a variety of different approaches to the theme, ‘Technology for disabled and older people’. There was some acknowledgment of the importance of social interaction and the need to address well-being for people in this defined group, although more generally, it seemed as if the computer science sector tends to focus on designing assistive technologies in support of people’s physical needs, without the same degree of attention given to their emotional or mental health.

Speaking of assistive technologies, this was my first experience of an event where a group of robots casually roamed around the convention center, acting as mobile conduits for remotely-based conference delegates. Here are some of the robot delegates meeting for a chat, while recharging their batteries:

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Amid all the ultra hi-tech on display throughout the conference, and profound questions being asked about the impact of ubiquitous artificial intelligence on human society, it was somehow reassuring to see how much the robots had to rely on human help for basic tasks like pressing the button to call the lift, navigating narrow doorways and identifying which seminar room was showing the presentation that they were interested in attending. I found myself feeling rather affectionate towards them on account of their robotic clumsiness.

On the whole, the dense conference programme of formal paper presentations was mostly dominated by highly technical and academic computer science research, far exceeding my non-expert understanding. However there were two stand-out presentations in particular, that were much less abstruse to the lay delegate (but no less rigorous) and completely absorbing. The first was a scenario, brilliantly presented by Joseph Lindley from LICA at Lancaster University, about pushing the limits of design fiction, where he made a compelling case for fictional research papers. The second highlight paper for me was titled, ‘I don’t want to wear a screen’: Probing Perceptions of and Possibilities for Dynamic Displays on Clothing. This presentation shared the extensive research collaboration between UC Berkeley and Google Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP). Together these two organisations have developed interactive digital textiles using conductive jacquard thread coated in thermochromic paints. Once made into garments, these dynamic textiles enable the wearer to send subtle social biosignals, or simply enjoy a versatile design.

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project-jacquard-many-garments

After five days of intense note-taking, discussion and mind-boggling thought about the seemingly infinite possibilities of technology, I found some artistic solace in the cool, reflective space of the San Jose Museum of Art, and in a chance meeting with another artist.

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Back in 2012, in Glasgow, I had met a San Francisco-based sculptor called Heidi Wastweet at an arts conference, and greatly admired her work. When I knew I would be visiting San Jose, I had contacted Heidi to see if she could work her schedule for a catch up while I was in the area. Thanks to the capabilities of Facebook technology (computer-human interaction at work) we met in person, via another conference, after four years, to talk patination and letter-carving techniques over lunch and then made a visit to the art and photography exhibitions in the Museum.

Following this delightfully serendipitous afternoon, I headed off to San Jose station where I boarded a double-decker Amtrak train bound for Van Nuys in Los Angeles. My return flight was out of LAX, so I had arranged to visit and stay with some friends who live in LA for a few days, before heading home.

amtrak-train-wide

During the ten hour scenic journey, I decided to pay homage to historic British/Californian local, Eadweard Muybridge, and his pioneering work using sequential photographs to create a sense of movement; the earliest form of moving image produced from stop-motion animation. So here is the day-long train ride photographed and condensed into a very basic silent ‘movie’, lasting all of 54 seconds: San Jose to Van Nuys by Amtrak

What a vast and varied landscape! The epic sweep of California can only begin to be appreciated by opting for slower forms of transport. The journey also provided a great opportunity to assimilate the conference experience and step out of my full immersion into the encoded world of computer science.

Embracing my comfort zone once more, I relished a visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to see a great range of sculptural work including Chris Burden’s Metropolis and Robert Irwin’s Miracle Mile, both particularly well situated against the backdrop of LA culture.

metropolis

miracle-mile

A quiet but somehow moving exhibition of Agnes Martin’s work marked a new artistic discovery for me, and I was drawn to her concentrated abstract lines and muted coloured canvases.

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Martin believed that it was spiritual inspiration and not intellect that created great work. ‘Without awareness of beauty, innocence and happiness’ Martin wrote, ‘one cannot make works of art’.

I planned to keep this profoundly sensitive, uplifting and outward-looking artistic approach in mind, on my return to England, when I would be continuing to develop the nature sounds rocking chair for older people with dementia, with a focus on providing a sense of well-being through the beauty of nature.

As coincidence would have it, just around the corner from where I was staying with friends, in District La Brea, I happened upon the only known rocking chair store in Southern California.

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The manager was a very friendly local lady who invited me to browse and try out the different types of rocking chairs, despite my inability to purchase anything and ship it back to the UK. I told her about our project and she kindly allowed me to take some photos, including a shot of the back room, where some of the stock had to hang from the walls in order to fit in.

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A framed poster proudly suggested presidential endorsement of the humble rocking chair.

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As I enjoyed the soothing comfort of one of the many rockers in the shop, I noticed how serene JFK looks in this image, and thought about how difficult it seemed somehow, to feel stressed in a rocking chair. These are pieces of furniture designed for unhurried relaxation, for contemplation perhaps, provided by the rhythmic calming motion that was gently tilting me back and forth. As my mind started to wander, I began to look forward to developing new ideas around well-being for our nature sounds rocking chair back in the UK, and felt creatively fortified by the experience of this entire trip, that has provided me with an huge amount of inspiration for many months to come.

 

Rocking Chair paper accepted for CHI 2016

RockingChair-v03

The Tangible Memories team were delighted to hear that their extended abstract ‘Rekindling Imagination in Dementia Care with the Resonant Interface Rocking Chair’ has been accepted for CHI 2016 conference. This annual gathering of the world’s Computer-Human Interaction community will take place in San Jose, California, and focus on the theme of ‘technology for good’. Project team members Pete Bennett and Heidi Hinder are looking forward to presenting their research in May. Meanwhile, you can read more about CHI 2016 here:  CHI conference 2016.

Testing the rocking chair prototype

A few weeks ago, we met with the Deputy Care Manager of the specialist dementia home that we are working with, in order to discuss the possibility of testing out our therapeutic rocking chair in situ, with some of the residents.

After some very useful conversations about health and safety, in perspective with positive risk-taking to ensure quality of life, we walked around the communal areas of the home, to choose a suitable location for the rocking chair to be situated on the initial test day.

There is a lovely ‘Garden Room’ in the care home which is not often used by the residents, partly due to the slightly foreboding approach of this long corridor:

Corridor to Garden Room

Once there however, the space is sunny and peaceful, and as its name suggests, the Garden Room overlooks a wide lawn, edged by plants, bird tables, a water fountain and flowerbeds:

GARDEN_ROOM_01

The natural place for the therapeutic rocking chair was in front of the French doors, so that residents could enjoy the view of the garden, while listening to music, poetry or sounds from nature, such as the dawn chorus, the wind in the treetops or crickets singing on a summer’s evening:

Rocking chair in window

On the test day, the rocking chair was trialed by eight residents and four care staff. It was very touching to watch their reactions and witness some delightful responses, not only to the chair itself as a novel item of furniture in the home, but also to the varying sound content triggered by the rocking motion and movement.

One resident, a former pilot, spent some time to begin with, exploring the surface of the chair through touch, commenting that it was like being in the cockpit of an aeroplane. Then, listening carefully to the different sounds emitting from the speakers embedded in the rocking chair’s headrests, she identified a woodpecker and an owl’s call among the chorus of birdsong, and she even cooed back to the owl in reply. As she heard the rhythmic sound of someone walking on snow, she lifted her legs up and down in time, keeping apace with them, and describing a vivid story to us about what was happening in her imagination: ‘The farmer’s on his way…’

Later in the day, we decided to adjust the sensitivity of the app so that it would trigger the sound from much more subtle movements, in order to correspond to the level of strength and capability in some of the residents. Where their own physical co-ordination had deteriorated, residents were passively rocked by a member of staff who moved the chair on their behalf. One resident was only able to activate the sound content via the app when holding my iPhone in her hand, and making small gestures to keep it moving and playing.

As a result, alongside the interactive rocking chair, we are planning to develop a handheld object-based version of the app, by embedding an iPhone into a tactile object, such as a foam ball, that could be used for armchair exercises for older people in care homes. Continuous movement of the object would similarly trigger sounds, music or poems, combining light muscle activity with a spontaneous audio experience.

On the test day, not all the residents seemed to recognise that sound was triggered by movement through the rocking motion, or necessarily to register that sound was playing at all, but this did not seem to matter. At some level, all the residents appeared to benefit from, and engage with the therapeutic rocking chair experience, even if it was simply to snooze in the sunshine, or relax and enjoy the new position overlooking the garden.

Noreen rocking CU

We look forward to developing our prototype over the next few months!

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.

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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!

Memories and Museums

Recently, we held a group session with residents that focused on the theme of favourite walks. For some of the older people we are working with, access to the outdoors represents a physical challenge or a rare treat, while the residents of this particular assisted living location generally enjoy a much greater level of independence and freedom to go outside.

The participants in this lively group discussion came prepared with a significant walk in mind from any point in their lives, and seemed to relish sharing their experiences about a walk, or pattern of walks, that had memorable meaning. One gentleman remembered the familiarity of his walk to infant school, made suddenly dramatic one day in 1927, when a bi-plane landed in a field next to the primary school. This was the first aeroplane he had ever seen. One lady took the opportunity to advertise a sponsored walk she had planned for the very next day, to raise money in aid of the resident’s activity fund. She was hoping to make two circuits around the building where the group live, but promised that if she could get a skateboard, she would be able to make it three! There were reminiscences about walks in Blaise Castle and the Hamlet, that seemed ‘like walking in a fairyland’, while others fondly recalled walks with a husband or wife amongst snowdrops or bluebells in the Springtime. For another lady, walking on land was significant in itself, as she and her family had lived on board a boat and her daughter had learnt to walk while they were at sea.

One of the outcomes of this session, exploring favourite walks and nearby locations, was the desire to revisit some of these places in real life, in order to re-experience them and have the chance of uncovering more distant memories. Adopting the more curatorial approach on offer (see post re TopoTiles), the group decided that they would enjoy visiting the MShed, a local museum about Bristol, its places, people and their stories, which effectively seemed to represent several of the locations that they had been discussing.

Tangible memories visit to M-Shed at Bristol docks. 7 Nov 2014

As a result, one blustery cold morning, we gathered into a minibus and travelled to Bristol’s harbourside to explore the MShed, and the many intriguing objects on display there.

Tangible memories visit to M-Shed at Bristol docks. 7 Nov 2014
View from inside the MShed over Bristol’s harbourside

In addition to the curated exhibitions that stretched across three floors of the museum and were complemented by wintery harbourside views, the residents particularly enjoyed a guided tour of the museum’s stores, known as the LShed.

Behind-the-scenes, in a dimly-lit warehouse, these uncurated and large-scale artefacts seemed all the more enticing somehow, stacked on shelving, without labels or glass cases, or peeking out from underneath plastic sheeting and behind cupboard doors.

Tangible memories visit to M-Shed at Bristol docks. 7 Nov 2014

In this unordered space, it felt as if there was more to discover in a serendipitous way, and this led to a greater number of memories being evoked for the residents, in response to the historic objects they observed among the aisles of storage.

Tangible memories visit to M-Shed at Bristol docks. 7 Nov 2014

The spontaneous discovery and revelation of items within the LShed collections seemed to vividly reflect the way in which we store our memories, as well as the manner in which we tend to recall them. Jumbled and disorderly, sometimes hidden from view, our past is usually recollected in a non-linear fashion, leaping from one event to another, bounding across years and back again.

Tangible memories visit to M-Shed at Bristol docks. 7 Nov 2014
A dentist’s chair with its foot-pedal drill evoked some teeth-clenching memories for the residents. (Museum visit photos: Jonathan Rowley)

The visit to the MShed and LShed, and the stories which the day evoked, were captured through a series of photographic images and sound recordings. Initially, the residents have chosen to use this material in a temporary exhibition in one of the communal living areas at their home:

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An audio-visual exhibition of the residents’ visit to MShed, currently on display in the foyer.

Five images were selected from the museum visit, with accompanying sound recordings that related to the objects in the photos.

Using three push-button sound systems already available in the foyer, we recorded short excerpts of narrative, into each of the three units:

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The mechanics of the sound system available for playing back and sharing stories from the MShed visit.

Here is an example, featuring one of the LShed mangles:

Tangible memories visit to M-Shed at Bristol docks. 7 Nov 2014

The residents now have further plans to share different aspects of their museum visit, including a slideshow for friends and neighbours (to be held later this month) and the suggestion of a ‘virtual museum’ to be installed at the home. This would involve using some of the images of the objects in store, within the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, so that those residents who are physically unable to travel to the museum itself, might be able to enjoy a similar, serendipitous discovery of the LShed and reminisce around the artefacts for themselves.

Tangible tea parties

The Tangible Memories team recently had the pleasure of hosting a tea party in each of the three care homes where we are currently working.

This was a great opportunity to celebrate the project so far and to share some of the design prototypes that we have been developing with the residents over the past few months. Alongside the wonderful live music, tea, cakes, flowers and bunting, there were technology demonstrations, and lots of play testing with the project’s design objects and ideas.

For example, the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset was a novelty for virtual travel experiences, such as the aerial views provided by a virtual hot-air balloon ride:

Trying out the virtual experience

Another popular object was ‘ButtonTuner’, the musical cushion, which triggered an animated session of singing along to ‘Singing in the Rain’:

The music playing cushion was popular

All the residents and the care staff too, enjoyed the series of co-produced interactive books, and were able to read the stories and hear the tales of different people’s life experiences, even those from other care homes:

The interactive books being read and enjoyed

Blaise Weston_staff enjoying books2

Exploring the use of pre-decimal currency in one of the homes caring for people with dementia was successful too. After giving out purses full of threepenny coins to the residents, we explained that just for fun, the ‘thrupenny bits’ could be exchanged for a drink and cake of their choice:

Money exchange 3

On the party menus, tea and cake cost 6d, the same price as in 1942. There was some mental arithmetic recalled in the counting, and whole Battenbergs were even exchanged for pooled sums of money!

Money exchange 2

Alongside the reminiscing of tea and cakes shared in the past and the stories evoked,  it was very poignant to observe the residents’ responses to the coins, for a group of people who no longer have access to, or need to use cash in their current circumstances. Some said they were so pleased to have something to give to their grandchildren when the family next visited, comments perhaps linked to years of giving coins as pocket money. Others were fascinated by the thrupenny pieces themselves, holding them, playing with them, seeming to dwell on the tactile experience of the familiar weight, feel and sound of the coins in their hands, secured with the satisfying snap of the purse clip. It seemed as if the purses and the pre-decimal tokens became a new acquisition, all the more coveted and treasured in an environment where people have few possessions, with little practical need for material objects. The game of exchanging old money for tea party treats (while residents were able to keep both at the end of the afternoon) was, in the words of one humorous resident: ‘not devious, just crafty’!