A smart speaker helps care for the elderly at home

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The system designed by two EPFL students to save time and provide greater peace

The system designed by two EPFL students to save time and provide greater peace of mind, has already been tested by several home-care providers. © 2019 EPFL

Two students from EPFL have developed a smart speaker with voice-activation technology that connects patients directly to their loved ones as well as caregivers and emergency services. The system, designed to save time and provide greater peace of mind, has already been tested by several home-care providers.

"Ouay, ask the nurse what time she’s coming." "Ouay, tell John to go run errands." Or "Ouay, I don’t feel well, call the nurse." The round smart speaker developed by the student team acts on the sound of a user’s voice. And it can connect users with people outside the home - caregivers, friends or family members can send text or voice messages to Ouay through a special app and Ouay reads the messages out loud. By providing a constant connection, the system allows elderly patients to remain independent while at the same time reassuring everyone involved that help is never far away. It has already been tested by several organizations that provide home-care services to the elderly.

Today there is a host of new systems for helping the elderly or handicapped live on their own, as well as a growing number of specially equipped apartment buildings. These developments are often motivated by the dual goals of improving patients’ lives and keeping costs down. And recent technological advancements, such as in sensors and alert systems, are supporting this trend. But the two people behind the idea for Ouay - Sven Borden, a first-year Master’s student in microengineering at EPFL, and Loïc Rochat, a student in mechanical engineering - found that there was one key element missing, based on their personal experience with elderly people. "We needed a reliable device that patients can use to easily communicate with people outside the home. That would help them feel more independent," says Borden. They fleshed out their idea at the Zurich hackathon, a weekend-long brainstorming marathon where would-be entrepreneurs come with a business idea and draft a business plan. Once the hackathon was over, the duo took their business plan and decided to run with it.

A reflection of the entrepreneurial spirit at EPFL 

Borden and Rochat teamed up with other students from EPFL, HEC and HE-ARC, and then spoke with local caregivers and patients in order to pinpoint their needs. "I think Ouay is a good reflection of the entrepreneurial spirit we have here at EPFL," says Borden. The students initially set up an association to build up their network and pool their funds. Since this initial investment, Ouay has expanded its reach considerably; the student team received an XGrant (financial support that EPFL provides to student startups) as well as a CHF 20,000 FIT Digital grant from Vaud’s Foundation for Technological Innovation (FIT). The proceeds were used to create the prototypes that are currently being tested by home-care providers.

Helping people fall asleep with remote hypnosis

For elderly patients, even minor inconveniences - like not being able to find something in their apartment or a nurse showing up late - can cause a great deal of stress. And caring for elderly patients can also cause stress for friends and family. To help alleviate these factors, Ouay has a number of useful features including alerts for taking medication, reminders for doctor’s appointments and messages that can reassure someone feeling anxious. These features work through the mobile telephone network. Jean-Luc Tuma, who heads up the local home-care group Uniquecare santé et soins à domicile, sees the clear benefits of the device, which his staff tested: "It’s an excellent way to help patients live autonomously, independently and safely." And his staff discovered new uses for Ouay as they tried it out in real-life situations. "The most remarkable thing we’ve done so far is having a hypnotherapist use the device to help a patient fall asleep through remote hypnosis," says Tuma. He believes Ouay will eventually become a standard tool for caregivers.

The students officially launched their company and want to bring in more people. They plan to seek out "motivated students aiming to become professional developers, prototype builders or electronic device designers, and give them another opportunity to work on concrete problems," says Rochat.