Holding the hands of sick children virtually – result of a student research project

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Sophie Kunz (left) and Anna Calmbach use a stuffed animal to keep in touch with sick children who are separated from their parents in an isolation ward.

Two media informatics students at Saarland University have developed a technically enhanced cuddly toy and a high-tech glove. With their research, Anna Calmbach and Sophie Kunz want to offer seriously ill children the opportunity to be connected with their parents at a distance. The idea came about when they were looking for topics for their Bachelor’s theses. They will present their results at the “Interaction Design and Children” conference at Delft University.

“Our supervisor at the time, Dr. Alice Haynes, was involved in the ‘Multi-Immerse’ project at Saarland University Hospital,” says Anna Calmbach. This interdisciplinary project looks at how relatives can visit seriously ill children and young people at Saarland University Hospital virtually. The aim is not just to have video conversations with the children in the isolation ward, but to create the virtual experience of a visit to the patient’s bedside as realistic as possible.

Under the guidance of their supervisor, the two students then designed a cuddly toy that children can use to make contact with their parents and a glove that can control the cuddly toy. “We had a lot of freedom in the design and were able to help decide how the research question should be approached. First of all, we looked at the needs that a new device would have to meet for parents and children,” says Sophie Kunz. In a comprehensive literature analysis, the two students worked out that children primarily need something they can touch, as even video calls are still very abstract for them. For parents, on the other hand, a mobile device is best suited so that they can communicate with their children on the go, for example. “The cuddly toy therefore offers children a bit of a substitute for physical contact with their parents, while the glove is a portable point of contact with their children for adults,” explain the students.

The two devices have three interlinked functions: If the parent waves with the glove switched on, the cuddly toy also waves. When the child shakes hands with the cuddly toy or the parent makes a gesture with the glove, hand-holding is simulated. This is achieved with heat and vibration on both devices, among other things. Children can also tell their parents how they are feeling. “To do this, we have installed a ‘feeling scale’ on both devices, which lights up green, yellow or blue depending on the child’s emotional state,” says Anna Calmbach.

The two prototypes were not only largely conceived by the students, but they also built, sewed, wired and programmed them themselves. They acquired the necessary knowledge during their studies. In a subsequent user study with parents and children between the ages of three and eleven, they tested how their developments were received by the target group. “The work was well received. It was nice to see the children’s smiles,” says Sophie Kunz.

Closely supervised by the “Human-Computer-Interaction Lab” of computer science professor Jürgen Steimle at Saarland University, the two students have developed their research and submitted it to a scientific conference. From June 17 to 20, they will travel to the “Interaction Design and Children Conference”, which is being held this year at the University of Delft in the Netherlands, where they will present their results.

Saarland University, htw saar and the Center for Mechatronics and Automation Technology (ZeMA) are working together at the Center for Digital Neurotechnologies Saar (CDNS) on the Homburg medical campus as part of the EFRE project “Multi-Immerse”, which Professor Martina Lehser (Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft des Saarlandes htw saar/ZeMA) is leading. In addition to Professor Martina Lehser and Professors Stefan Seelecke and Paul Motzki, also involved are from Saarland University’s Faculty of Medicine Professor Daniel Strauss (Director of the Systems Neuroscience & Neurotechnology Unit), Professor Michael Zemlin (Director of the Clinic for Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine at Saarland University Hospital) and Professor Eva Möhler (Director of the Clinic for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Saarland University Hospital) and furthermore, computer scientists from Saarland University (Professor Jürgen Steimle) and the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI).

Further information:
Human-Computer-Interaction Lab: https://hci.cs.uni-saarland.de/
Further research topic as part of the Multi-Immerse project: https://www.uni-saarland.de/aktuell/hannover-messe-smarte-textilien-30945.html

Philipp Zapf-Schramm
Saarland Informatics Campus
Phone: +49/681/302-70741
Mail: pzapf(at)cs.uni-saarland.de

Press contact:
Thorsten Mohr
Saarland University
Phone: 0681/302-2648
Mail: presse.mohr(at)uni-saarland.de

Background Saarland Informatics Campus:
900 scientists (including 400 PhD students) and approx. 2500 students from more than 80 nations make the Saarland Informatics Campus (SIC) one of the leading locations for computer science in Germany and Europe. Four world-renowned research institutes, namely the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI), the Max Planck Institute for Informatics, the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems, and the Center for Bioinformatics along with Saarland University and its three departments and 24 degree programs, together cover the entire spectrum of computer science.