Regaining control

Empowering ALS patients to control their environments

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that causes patients to lose motor control and eventually leads to complete paralysis. This debilitating disease eventually renders patients unable to do anything without help, and eventually makes communication of their needs impossible.

Today, new wearable technologies have the potential to enable patients with diseases such as ALS to regain some control and independence and improve their quality of life. In collaboration with a best-in-class team of innovators, Fjord collaborated with colleagues at Accenture and partners Philips and Emotiv to explore how we might be able to help design a better future for ALS patients.

The brain as controller

It became apparent early on in the proof of concept discussion, that a wearable, heads up display (HUD) could be the ideal platform for late-stage ALS patients and early-stage patients could also benefit from the additional inputs the HUD could offer. Fjord’s designers tested hardware to understand functionality of HUDs as well as the Emotiv Insight, a wireless EEG headset that detects brain commands, micro-facial expressions, and emotional states. After these sessions, it became clear that using Emotiv’s machine learning algorithms, users had the potential to train and improve their focus to complete actions faster through brain commands. Helping people complete tasks with ease and speed became a guiding principle for the proof of concept research project.

Working in collaboration with the hardware and technology teams, and incorporating feedback from the ALS community, the participating companies engaged in workshops to quickly iterate and define the proof of concept through various “what if” exercises.

The team agreed upon a proof of concept that focused on simplicity and efficiency. We accessed Emotiv Insight’s ability to detect brain commands to train two EEG thought patterns for “down” and “right.”  Maintaining a direct physical metaphor to the user’s thought pattern was important in ensuring ease and speed of use. As a result, we focused on the design of a three-level card carousel that a user could dive into with a “down” thought pattern, or scroll through with a “right” thought pattern.

This would allow a patient to quickly complete tasks such as make a call, send a pre-set text or email, or turn on/off connected devices such as the Philips SmartTV or Philips Hue wireless lighting. Another consideration was ensuring optimization of tasks from the start. For instance, if a patient selects “turn on the TV,” the volume setting should not be turned on from the level at which it was last playing. Because a task such as changing the volume requires the user to switch into the volume card, this could take up to 10 seconds to complete. Instead, the volume when turned on should start below a medium level to avoid the potential of the TV blaring as soon as they turn it on.

The Emotiv Insight can also detect emotions, including monitoring of stress levels. This presented a unique opportunity to shift typical interaction paradigms from pre-set menus to a dynamic menu that changes based on the patient’s emotion. For a stressed patient trying to make a phone call, their contact defaults might change so the first contact option becomes 911 or their aide. It also opened opportunities to help enable communication. By sensing their emotional state, the design allows patients to visually communicate their mood and needs to others. By communicating these moods to Philips Hue, a connected light bulb that can change color, an ALS patient could indicate, for instance, that they are thirsty by turning the light blue.

Improving quality of life

The proof of concept has the potential to return independence to ALS patients, empowering them to do simple and necessary tasks that improve quality of life. More importantly, the proof of concept explores the potential for giving ALS patients control of their home environments and the ability to communicate with others.

This collaboration is a powerful testament to the impact that design and technology can have on peoples’ lives. Beginning with this specific challenge, the proof of concept shows how wearable technology and connected devices can possibly pave the way for entirely new interaction paradigms that fit the unique needs of individuals.

Watch a video showcasing the proof of concept here.