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Combating loneliness with the help of robots

with Marius Aabel, Co-founder & CTO at No Isolation

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Research shows that loneliness can be more harmful than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Being away from others and feeling lonely can also increase heart and circulation problems as well as spur all kinds of mental health issues. Recognising this, No Isolation, a Norwegian startup, has made it their mission to tackle social isolation.

In this episode of HealthRedesigned, we chat with Marius Aabel, Co-founder and CTO at No Isolation. Marius tells us why social isolation is such a pressing problem and how they’re using technology to help children with long-term illness and seniors connect with friends and family.

Dangers of social isolation

What is social isolation?

Involuntary social isolation happens when a person is alone but doesn’t want to be alone. Sometimes we seek to be alone to have some quiet time but there are times when you’re alone and you don’t want to be. That’s when you’re isolated and it’s no longer healthy for you, and that can affect your physical health.

Do you think it only affects older people?

We think it’s a problem for older people but it also affects people of various and ages and situations. We became aware of the problem when we heard that children with a long-term illness are isolated at hospitals. For example, children who are 8 or 9 years old and have cancer are going to spend a lot of time away from school. They may see their family but not their friends and of course, they’re going to miss them. Most of the time, when these children recover and are ready to go back to school, they don’t look forward to it because they don’t know what’s been going on in class while they were away.

“We found it alarming that 20% of children who have been in the hospital for six months or more during their childhood, will never get a job—not because of the illness they’ve had but because of the social isolation they’ve experienced.”

Helping children with long-term illnesses stay connected

You’ve created a robot called AV1 to help children with long-term illnesses connect with the outside world. Could you tell us more?

When a child is at home or at a hospital, the AV1 robot would be standing on a desk in the classroom and the child can interact through the robot and be present in the classroom. The robot becomes their eyes, ears and mouth because if they speak into their mobile phone or tablet, the child’s voice is projected. So it’s a telepresence robot actually. The child uses a regular tablet or smartphone with a special app that we’ve created to connect to the robot.

What does the robot look like?

It’s around 30cm tall and weighs around 1kg, which is big enough to be a presence in the classroom. If it were too small, others might overlook it. While it’s big enough to represent the child’s presence, it’s light and small enough to be carried around. The robot can also be taken out during recess and brought along to activities outside of school. It also goes to birthday parties and can visit places where the child can’t go as long as they’re ill.

How does the child communicate through the robot? Does the child control everything or does the robot also do things autonomously?

No, it’s not autonomous at all and the child is 100% in control. The child chooses when to log on and can do so when they have spare time, for example when they’re waiting around in the hospital. When they want to log on, they just touch the tablet, control it, look around in all directions, listen in and speak. They can also raise their hand by using the robot’s eye lights.

The robot will blink when the child wants to get some attention, but if they only want to listen in and not engage, they can turn the robot’s head lights blue. This means that a class shouldn’t involve that child and they are only there to listen in—that’s the mode they can use when they don’t feel well enough to be a contributor in the classroom.

Replicating a human presence

What’s the reaction of teachers and students when they have this kind of presence in a classroom?

We’ve seen that other children in the classroom love it and the child who’s ill also gets a little boost because suddenly they’re a robot and they become very popular in class. The teachers love it too because they miss the child and feel responsible. The teacher usually receives the robot very well and even takes care of charging it. But for teachers who don’t know the child, for example, a temporary teacher, they sometimes don’t receive the robot that well because they don’t know the person behind the robot.

We didn’t incorporate a screen on the robot because if you’re sick and don’t look as good, maybe you have holes in your nose or you have lost your hair, you may not look your best. For a teacher or classmate to communicate with a child through the robot, they’d need to know the person at the other end. But all in all, it’s been very well received.

Bridging the gap between the old and young in families

Did No Isolation have other product ideas before AV1?

When we learned that children with long-term illness were isolated are having problems because of it, that made us start the company. We then started researching more and found out that loneliness isn’t just a problem among children with long-term illness, but also among all age groups and situations. We called the company No Isolation to clearly communicate what we’re going to do—work against social isolation. Our goal was always to have several products, but we wanted to start with the product that made us start the company, and then continue with the next product once that shipped. We started mass producing the AV1 in January and during the same month, we started research on our next product.

Since we started with children, we thought, okay, let’s do the opposite. Let’s target seniors. We spent two months researching, learning everything we could about seniors and loneliness. An interesting statistic we came across is that one-third of people over 80 claim to be lonely. We also learned that 75% of people over 80 are not on social media, and that’s where the day-to-day interactions are happening these days—and this isn’t a singled-out problem.

For example, a person who has lost their mobility, isn’t able to lead an active lifestyle anymore. This might mean that they spend more time at home, making their social network limited. Another example is people who have lost their motor skills and their brain doesn’t function as well as it used to, so they don’t feel comfortable being outside anymore. These are just a few of many different reasons why the older generation tends to be lonely.

So, we wanted to make a digital solution to help them keep in touch with the younger generation with a technology they’re able to use.

Can you tell us about KOMP?

It’s a computer for seniors who don’t use any other modern technology like tablets, smartphones or PCs. It only has one on/off button and the computer is controlled by the person’s family. Everybody in the family can install an application on their phone, take pictures and send them. They can also add widgets for local news stories or the weather. We’re going to add more types of content eventually.

How does a senior person interact with the device?

It’s almost like a slideshow for all the content and the screen shows pictures and text on a continuous basis. We made this automatic to target seniors who are afraid of technology or can’t use it. If you give them a product with a lot of buttons, they probably won’t accept it. We use social media all the time, uploading and contributing, but we also spend a lot of time just reading and looking and they are cut out of this because they can’t handle the devices to be a part of it. By getting this stream from family members, they get the same excitement we do when we receive a Snapchat message for example.

Once they accept this device and start loving it because they’re getting all this content from their family, they might be open to doing more, even controlling the device. We’re going to launch more add-ons to it like simple arrow keys and a ‘like’ button so that they can, for example, select content and ‘like’ it.

How have seniors reacted to KOMP so far?

During our 50-day user test, one test subject refused to use the product initially, but after some coaxing from his family, he let them bring it home for him and asked that it be placed far away as possible in the corner of his living room. The next day, he actually called his family and asked if they could move it closer because he was enjoying getting a lot of pictures from them. So it was moved next to his coffee table.

On the following day, he requested that it be placed beside his TV so that he could watch TV and see the pictures at the same time. So it actually took him one day to accept it and start loving it. This happened for almost all our test subjects and we didn’t expect them to use it that much. They all received around 2 to 10 pictures a day from their families. When the test was over after 50 days, we weren’t allowed to come get the KOMPs because they wanted to keep it.

Involving users in the design process

What insights have caught you by surprise during user testing?

The function on the AV1 that allows a child to listen in but not interact was something we hadn’t thought about at all and only discovered a need for when we tested it in real life. That was a function that became really important part of the product that we would never have found out about if it weren’t for user testing.

When we showed the robots to grown-ups, all of them had their own ideas on what the robots needed to have, like arms and legs—basically there were a lot of requirements. But when we started testing it with real children in classrooms, they asked for things that were nothing like what the grown-ups had mentioned.

It was also during one of the first tests that we got feedback from a child who wanted the robot to be in black and have a Darth Vader voice. So we actually 3D-printed a new one in black for him, but at that stage, we weren’t able to give him the Darth Vader voice filter he wanted—I don’t know if his teacher would have appreciated that so much.

Have you worked with others to create the AV1 and KOMP?

Yes, we’ve worked with schools, hospitals and organisations pretty much from day one. When we were ready to user test the AV1, we knew we didn’t have the resources to run it as a three-person team. So we started working with a university in Oslo that has a user experience lab and became part of a PhD that was working with loneliness and children.

They actually designed a user testing system for us and ran the tests. We also looped in two Norwegian hospitals which provided us with the users to test with.

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