The Autism Speaks’ Innovative Technology for Autism (ITA) Initiative has awarded more than $400,000 in new research grants to develop innovative assistive, educational, therapeutic, and diagnostic technologies for persons with autism.
2011 saw a new approach for Autism Speaks’ Innovative Technology for Autism(ITA) Initiative with the running of a student design competition called Autism Connects. The design brief was pretty straight forward: to create technology design ideas for individuals with autism to better connect with the world around them, and to allow individuals who do not have autism to better understand and connect with those who do.
Young and old, technology is never far from us. It enables our communication and helps us grow and maintain social relationships. For years Autism Speaks has promoted the research of technologies to support children and adults with ASD, whether that is through the awarding of grants or by supporting research-networking events.
2011 saw a new approach for Autism Speaks’ Innovative Technology for Autism (ITA) initiative with the running of a student design competition called Autism Connects. The design brief was pretty straight forward: to create technology design ideas for individuals with autism to better connect with the world around them, and to allow individuals who do not have autism to better understand and connect with those who do.
Autism Connects was a partnership between Autism Speaks, Core 77 and jovoto. In total there were 126 design ideas submitted from over 30 countries. The popularity of the competition really shows the passion and interest there is for autism around the world and how we can engage young professionals to use their burgeoning skills to make a difference in the lives of people with ASD and their families.
The submitted ideas were judged by a panel of international experts on ASD, including Temple Grandin and John Robison. The jury rated the best design and first prize to Gobug, by Greg Katz and Tom Rim from the University of Illinois College of Fine and Applied Arts Industrial Design.
“Gobug is designed to move around on a ground surface at the control of the users. Up to two or three children can play with the toy simultaneously. Each user takes ownership of one controller. These controllers work in conjunction; each user points his/her remote in a direction, and the Gobug moves in the combined direction of the active controllers” said Greg Katz and Tom Rim.
When asked how the team came upon this original idea, Greg Katz said, “We took this on from a user-centered design perspective. The focus was 100% on the person we were designing for. We designed through an iterative process, constantly sketching ideas and fine tuning them in to workable concepts. The outcome was Gobug.”
In second place was WEsync, which was designed by Noel Cunningham from Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore, Md.
“weSYNC is an application for the iPad, iPhone, and Web, that creates a specialized profile for the autistic individual by gathering knowledge from each caregiver and establishing a centralized location where it can be accessed and edited by everyone. Establishing a dialogue among doctors, therapists, teachers and parents allows them to share information and reinforce oneanother’s efforts.”
In third place was another idea from Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore designed by Cameron Zotter whose idea is called Visual Watch. The watch is both a time management and picture exchange communication system (PECS) tool designed specifically for people with ASD.
The three prize winners were invited to this week’s International Meeting for Autism Research to present their designs in person at the technology demonstration on Friday. Autism Speaks’ Chief Science Officer Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D., will be announcing the winners and celebrating their innovations on Friday at the event.
The breadth and wealth of these students’ ideas reflects the technology and autism field in general. All of the designs that were submitted had considered and detailed ways of using technology to aid the lives of people with ASD or those who love and support them. The potential of these ideas to make a difference for families is vast. Our next challenge is how we get these concepts and ideas out into the real world and we’d be interested to hear your ideas on how to achieve that.
Through this competition Autism Speaks has encouraged a new community of young people to think about ASD. Our hope is that Greg, Tim, Noel, and Cameron will take this experience into their working lives and have autism close to their thoughts when they are planning their future projects.
Lastly, none of this could have been possible without our fantastic ITA committee members, who are chaired by Drs. Katherina Boser and Matthew Goodwin. Also, enormous thanks to our judges and the community experts who guided the students’ design ideas to help make them as good as they turned out to be.
You can find out more about the three Jury Prize winners and the six Community Prize winners here.
Autism Speaks’ Innovative Technology for Autism Initiative (ITA) has teamed up with design network Core77 to produce “Autism Connects,” Core77 to produce “Autism Connects,” a student technology and design competition around the themes of autism and communication. The purpose of our competition is to encourage design students to develop technology solutions that can help individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to better connect with the world around them, and to allow individuals who do not have ASD to better understand and connect with those who do.
Running from January 2 through March 31, the competition is hosted on Core77’s recently-launched Design Arena open innovation platform, powered by Core77’s technology partner Jovoto. It is an international design competition that is open to all students (college, post-grad, and high school).
To participate in this contest, please click here.
We’ve got an incredible jury of world-renowned designers and experts, including Yves Behar, principal of Fuse Project; Lisa Strausfeld, partner of Pentagram; Temple Grandin, well-known autism author and researcher; Portia Iversen, autism advocate and author of “A Strange Son;” Dan Feshbach, co-founder of TeachTown, as well as several others. Dozens of autism liaisons from the community will provide participants with expert feedback and advice throughout the duration of the competition in order to make this as educational and interactive as possible.
The first prize is $5000, with the top three entries receiving a travel stipend to present their ideas at next May’s IMFAR Conference (International Meeting for Autism Research) in San Diego.
There has already been enormous interest around the Autism Connects Technology & Design Competition. Recently, Core77’s Allan Chochinov sat down with ITA members Sophia Colamarino, Katharina Boser and Matthew Goodwin to talk about the motivations behind opening up to the greater design community, about their hopes and dreams for the competition outcomes, and to get some advice for designers who want to contribute to this growing, exciting field.
Allan Chochnikov: What were some of the motivations of ITA in engaging the greater design community?
Katharina Boser: We are very excited to be considering the design community’s input in technology applications for people with autism. Our Innovative Technology for Autism initiative has been around for at least 10 years. Most of our ITA steering committee members and network consist of either psychologists and clinicians with an expertise in autism (its therapy and diagnosis) or computer scientists and human computer interaction (HCI) experts. We have never had input from designers regarding how therapies can strive for better ‘design’ whether high or low technology is engaged. Great designs paired with innovative technologies have the potential to open powerful new doors to a more connected world for a person with autism.
Autism has two specific underlying impairments that designers are particularly good at thinking about. One is that people with ASD are not motivated by the same things that motivate the rest of us (social factors), and the second is that people with ASD have incredible sensory sensitivities (e.g., to touch, taste, smell, audition and vision) that can be so extreme as to severely impair daily life and experience. Design involves primarily being good at engaging others by means of a variety of their senses and also understanding people’s underlying motivation for engagement. Both of these factors influence the ability to engage and connect or communicate with others. I see the design world contributing something very crucial to the issue of finding new ways to motivate communication and addressing a range of different sensory sensitivities through the totality of consideration of the physical experience, a practice which designers undertake regularly in the practice of their profession.
Matthew Goodwin: I wanted to add that we’re seeking to encourage out of the box thinking by inviting fresh perspectives from a community with different backgrounds, methods, and styles of solving a problem. The complexity of autism is overwhelming scientifically. Designers are comfortable with complexity, and often produce elegantly simple solutions to hard problems. ITA is obviously also interested in capitalizing on technology as a way to better study, understand and support those affected by autism. A design competition that takes place over the internet is exactly the kind of technology usage we applaud. The “openness” of the competition is also appealing as it invites transparency, collaborative thinking, and opportunities for flexibility and enhancement of an idea. Many of us working in the field are also entrenched in our own paradigms; what we think is impossible may in fact be attainable through a fresh and different perspective.
Sophia Colamarino: The goal of the ITA is to encourage effective and inspired technology that enhances the pace of autism research and treatment. We’ve always promoted collaboration among technologists, designers, engineers, and various stakeholders in the autism community, but we realized we’ve primarily gone about this by working through the academic community. For instance, we’ve funded some great ITA classes at several universities around the country as well as many academic research grants. This time we wanted to do something different, so we specifically chose to run this competition through a design community site to engage an entirely new community of talent that has not previously been working on autism.
AC: Talk to us about the level of “completeness” of the entries. I mean, a lot of the videos we link to in the brief are finished working products or prototypes, but this competition also invites design “concepts.” How would you characterize what that means in terms of design deliverables?
MG: Every product begins with an idea and undergoes many changes. Nearly all the technology examples we’ve provided started with a sketch on a napkin, underwent numerous revisions after talking with others, and were built in a variety of ways before settling on a finished product. We invite entries at all levels of the design process. Concepts are especially welcome, and designers should not feel confined to actually producing a prototype or tangible product. We can’t build what we can’t imagine.
KB: We also hope to foster collaboration on design projects by getting different experts to contribute their knowledge to the entrants’ concepts through the platform of the open design competition. We certainly welcome ideas that come in at all levels.
AC: So you don’t need to be on a team of grad students working on a project that is already funded to enter a design!?
KB: Absolutely not. We want the fresh ideas, not necessarily the ones that have all the background knowledge in this area. A ‘blank slate’ or ‘tabula rasa’ with respect to background of autism technology is not a bad thing to bring to the table here; we believe a new perspective is what’s needed to drive the field forward in terms of what is missing with current products. We would love for our student designers to be thinking not only of the cost and feasibility of their design but also of ease of usability for both the parent/therapist as well as the child.
MG: We anticipate that some of the best ideas will be low-tech and come from non-academics. However, as per the competition rules, it is important that you be a registered student (have a .edu email address).
AC: What are some of the iconic examples you’ve seen over the years having to do with technology and autism, both and low- and high-tech?
MG: Some of the high-tech examples include virtual reality, social robots, automated facial recognition detection and wearable sensors that record physiological functioning. Low-tech examples include picture-exchange systems, social stories and sequencing of events on a calendar.
KB: Actually, a wonderful low-tech design idea was submitted to me by a parent of a child with autism. Since it’s a device designed to aide language communication ‘on the go,’ she purposefully made it a device that would not require batteries or electricity because she worried about this device losing charge. Her name is Amy Miller, and she is still looking for a ‘partner’ to take this idea further, so I can’t divulge details here but perhaps a student participant who reads this interview might want to look her up on the competition site, which I’ve invited her to join as an ‘expert-liaison’. Some of the best high-tech ideas involve mobile devices of course. One design developed by Gillian Hayes at UCSD and Luanne Hunt was shown at this year’s IMFAR conference and involved a social compass for kids with ASD. This mobile application would use GPS to recognize social ‘partners’ and then cue the user regarding potential conversation topics, closeness of stance, as well as the necessity to ‘close’ the conversation appropriately. We hope that student designers will take advantage of their ability to engage with Dr. Hayes as well as the many other liaisons on the site to get feedback on their ideas.