Baycrest opens lab to spark innovations in aging

A slim robot stole the spotlight when Baycrest officially opened its Innovation, Technology and Design Lab (ITD) in late February.

The telepresence robot, spanning just over four feet in height with an iPad head that displays video images, moved niftily in all directions, quickly attracting a crowd of fascinated onlookers. The Open House showcased several cutting edge projects aimed at providing solutions to the challenges facing the health system and an aging population.

Working with an industry partner, Baycrest is exploring assisted living, telepresence robotic applications for the home and long term care environments. The technology would enable a family caregiver to maintain visual and verbal communication and monitoring of their frail family member at a distance –from their work or home computer. The robot’s iPad head provides two-way visual communication, so both parties can see and talk to each other. A small mirror-like camera mounted on the robot’s pedestal body captures a 360-degree view of the room it is in.

The 1,295-square-foot lab is outfitted with shiny white floor-to-ceiling walls that serve as one large scientific doodle pad – easily written on with dry erase markers during project team discussions and focus group brainstorming sessions. The lab is designed to bring together clinical staff, industry reps, artists, designers, engineers, students, family caregivers and seniors to explore creative ways of thinking and problem-solving. The discussions will act as a springboard for systematically developing and evaluating innovative products and services with potential commercial application.

Baycrest’s ITD lab is unique in the world. It bridges the science world with the clinical and real-life client worlds of seniors. It aims to validate innovative solutions in the real world, in real time, based on genuine human need and user-centred designs for the aging population. That’s why the ongoing involvement of key users such as seniors and caregivers is so critical to the process. And while there are other innovation labs using the same methodology, they are not embedded in a 21-acre campus with a seniors’ continuum of care that spans housing to acute care, a world-renowned cognitive neuroscience centre, and top minds focused on aging.

“We also want to engage people not just in healthcare, but anyone who can contribute new perspectives and ways of exploring solutions,” says Bianca Stern, occupational therapist and director of Culture, Arts and Innovation at Baycrest. “The ITD lab is the place where people can take their ideas from inception to launch.”

“The objective of the lab is to bring new solutions to people. We select projects that have an excellent potential for rapid transfer to market in one to three years,” adds Laurent Moreno, manager of the ITD lab.

Examining the use of avatars to enhance the well-being of frail, aging clients is another project underway in the lab. Baycrest is working with an industry partner to explore virtual reality applications that would provide recreational and social support for homebound, isolated seniors and caregivers, and be used for staff training and education. For example, senior clients with limited mobility could participate in activities they enjoy, such as going dancing or walking in the park, via an avatar that represents them in the virtual world.

The lab is also testing mobile and tablet technology software that would facilitate smoother transitions of care for patients who move from hospital to long term care and help reduce the rate of readmissions to hospital. The project is funded by the Ministry of Economic Development and Innovation. Baycrest clinicians will be piloting these technology solutions to gauge their effectiveness in supporting real-time communication, care coordination and knowledge transfer among staff, families, and community care providers, from both the hospital and long term care sides.

Other projects in development in the ITD lab:
•    Re-thinking the nursing home model of the future – A diverse group of thinkers, from hospitality and retirement home industries, psychology, art and design, as well as seniors in the community and in long term care, are exploring the resident’s lived experience in the nursing home in order to identify ways that will allow seniors to age more comfortably in place. The model will also be a place for learning and teaching the next generation of caregivers, and will be linked to Baycrest’s new Centre for Learning, Research and Innovation in Long Term Care, funded by the Ontario Government.

•    Social robot project – Baycrest is working with the University of Toronto’s Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering to explore the use of social robots that would assist seniors with mild to moderate cognitive impairment residing in long term care environments. The robot, built with emotion-sensing computer software, is envisioned as a social coach on wheels, providing verbal cues and social encouragement, to motivate seniors to engage in recreational and self-care activities. The robot as social coach is a model already being tested elsewhere. In the U.S., a team of researchers at three universities (Memphis, Notre Dame and MIT) are developing a social robot as an assistive tutor for students.

Delving into the exotic world of social robotics and avatars is a natural step for Baycrest. For several years it has been exploring emerging technologies, such as smartphones, as assistive aids or memory prosthetics for adults with a range of memory disorders, from mild cognitive impairment to severe amnesia.