Proceedings Spotlight: Quality of Life Technologies

The August issue looks at intelligent systems for the elderly or disabled

8 August 2012

proceed Photo: IEEE

Another in a series of articles in The Institute highlighting the special issues being published by Proceedings of the IEEE in celebration of the journal’s 100th anniversary.

More than 1 billion people around the world have some type of disability, according to the 2011 World Report on Disability. And as people live longer, the number with cognitive and musculoskeletal diseases that impair motor skills will increase dramatically. Engineers can help them overcome many of the difficulties they face, however.

Perhaps no one knows that better than renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which cripples the body and affects speech and most other motor skills. “The majority of people with disabilities in the world have an extremely difficult time with everyday survival, let alone productive employment and personal fulfillment,” Hawking writes in his introduction to the disability report, produced by the World Health Organization and World Bank Group. “Computer experts have supported me with an assisted communication system and a speech synthesizer, which allow me to compose lectures and papers, and to communicate with different audiences.”

August’s Proceedings of the IEEE focuses on such quality-of-life technologies (QOLTs) and their application by the disabled and elderly. QOLTs include assistive robots and cognitive aids that monitor users and provide feedback.

The first paper, “Designing and Evaluating Quality of Life Technologies: An Interdisciplinary Approach,” provides a road map for QOLTs’ design, development, and evaluation. It emphasizes the importance of having an interdisciplinary team to make the evaluation, consisting of social scientists, clinicians, engineers, and computer scientists.

Robotics is integral to many QOLTs, and four papers in the issue cover advances in these robots’ development of sensing techniques.

“HERB 2.0: Lessons Learned From Developing a Mobile Manipulator for the Home,” describes a two-armed robot on wheels for those without control of their own arms to perform such tasks as moving household objects, both large and small. The article describes the hardware, software, and core algorithms of the device, developed by the Personal Robotics Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh.

“Home Assistant Robot for an Aging Society” describes a life-size humanoid robot on wheels. Its two arms can perform daily chores, like sorting laundry and sweeping floors. The authors explain how they used software incorporating 3-D modeling and object recognition and manipulation.

“First-Person Vision” explores an early version of a wearable sensor that captures what a low-vision person might be looking at, and transmits the images to a computer that relies on algorithms for computer vision and machine learning. The sensor has two cameras: one focused on the scene being observed, the other on the person’s eye. Information is sent back to the user for guidance in doing a variety of tasks. One future application might be to assist visually disabled workers with detailed manufacturing and assembly procedures.

“Cognition-Enabled Autonomous Robot Control for the Realization of Home Chore Task Intelligence” describes a robot that can do chores around the home. An inference mechanism allows the robot to make decisions on the fly while performing chores such as, say, cooking food. The robot tackles the tasks with no human direction and can react and deal with circumstances it may be “seeing” for the first time.

The next section comprises two papers that describe devices that sense their environment and then help people. The first paper describes cognitive aids, virtual coaches that continuously monitor a person’s surroundings and activities and alert them to dangers. The second covers the elements required in an assistive environment such as a smart home for the elderly.

Rehabilitative and therapeutic systems come next. “Personal Mobility and Manipulation Appliance: Design, Development, and Initial Testing” describes a rehabilitative system involving a wheelchair with robotic arms for people with severe disabilities involving both the upper and lower extremities.

Another paper focuses on a so-called socially assistive robot that coaches the elderly to exercise. And “Therapeutic Seal Robot as Biofeedback Medical Device” evaluates the efficacy of therapy involving Paro, a soft and furry robot seal that can be stroked by a patient as it sits in her lap. It is being tried in medical facilities to improve the emotional mood and behavior of those with dementia. Paro responds as if it is alive, moving its head, flippers, and tail and making sounds imitating those of a baby harp seal.

“Universal Design for Quality of Life Technologies” covers the importance of developing general-purpose QOLTs for people with any type of disability. Certain design characteristics must be present for universal use, and the paper outlines problems with designs that neglect segments of the population.

To read the full issue, you can subscribe to the journal.

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