Hugo Simão was a Master student in Product Design at the Architecture Faculty of Lisbon University, when he first started cooperating with ISR-Lisboa. The door for this collaboration first opened because of the work Hugo was developing for his Master thesis, undergone through a partnership between his main faculty and the University of Lisbon Faculty of Sciences.

“Several people in my family suffered from dementia (Alzheimer’s) so my motivation to develop a thesis project related to that issue was very personal. Firstly, I wanted to work on an object that could help their daily lives– in the kitchen, on medication intake and other mundane actions – but after an iterative study with the help of Alzheimer Portugal psychologists, people with dementia and specialized caregivers, I noticed that there were numerous necessities and that a more complex “object” would be needed in order to deal with all the functionalities required.”

In his research, Hugo found that some objects were already being developed with that same objective, for instance, wearables that are able to communicate the user’s whereabouts. But the more he worked on the subject the more he found that the object should be able to elicit empathy and be easily located by the patients. It was also important for this aid to be autonomous so that it could supply assistance 24/7 and decrease episodes of disorientation.

Current procedures focus on the mitigation of dementia symptoms, so, to help with the absence of routines and lack of memory, Hugo started thinking of the object as an autonomous robot that would work on the promotion of independence and autonomy for the longest period possible. “From the time people start being overcome by limitations their state usually deteriorates very quickly. The longest they keep being stimulated cognitively the more new neural networks are created and the remaining ones maintained.”

Hugo is now working on a robot that aims to positively impact the daily routines of people with dementia. “The robot has a series of reminders set for certain times of day, like meals and sleep time. It is a sort of moving memo with alarms, that can project information on walls as well as multisensorial stimulation.” Some of that sensory development has to do with smell.“Our olfactory bulb runs from the nose to the base of the brain, having direct connections to our amygdala (responsible for emotion processing) and to the hippocampus (memory and cognition area). Because of this, the sense of smell is the one of the most able to awake old memories on people suffering from this type of conditions. If there is a familiar smell, even if they might not recognize a person, that smell could still illicit tranquillity, because of its familiarity.”

This type of memory stimulation can be a difficult task for a caregiver. Sometimes family members are afraid to share personal belongings of their family member with the health professionals because they’re afraid they could be lost. Others, health professionals might not have the time needed to focus on a memory intake of the person being cared for, who has no trustworthy knowledge on their own past. These factors difficult a rewind of personal information that is very needed in this sort of therapy. Especially since currently institutions are extremely crowded and often there aren’t enough professionals to allow an individual cognitive stimulation. Hugo’s project intends to be an alternative since the robot could offer a personal history and accompaniment that the therapists cannot fulfil by themselves.

When Hugo Simão set out to do a series of structured interviews he reached out to scientists in the field of sociology to aid him in that crucial portion of the work. But because his “object” was becoming increasingly complex he also found the need to contact an engineer. That’s why Hugo reached out to Professor Alexandro Bernardino, in a very informal way, to discuss his project. As it happened the regular meeting of the VisLab group, was taking place soon, and that next Tuesday Hugo was presenting his project to the whole team. A few months later Hugo was invited to join a team at ISR-Lisboa currently working on the AHA (Augmented Human Assistance) Project.

“I think multidisciplinary is very necessary because even if there is a common goal people have a different way to approach it: some might be specifically inclined towards details in engineering, while others are more focused in the social component that is equally necessary in order to perceive limitations and expectations. Personally I mostly focus on human-robot interaction, the acceptance the robot might have by the humans and what functionalities and service most make sense for the robot to have. Even details like wires showing might affect the way people chose to physically interact, or not, with the robot.”

During his studies in Design, Hugo was exposed to several areas within the field. His personal motivation to work towards improving the life quality of people with dementia geared him towards a field a little different from his own, but that doesn’t surprise him. “In terms of design, we had the need for something mobile that could accompany the patients. I not only focus on human acceptance based on appearance, so the functionality of the robot as a service provider, but I also give input on ergonomical questions that are highly important in the development of service robots.”

 “When I arrived the world of robotics was completely new to me. But because of the specific field that I come from I’m very much interested in studying how service and appearance might impact the acceptance of robots by humans, especially long-term, because in a short interaction there’s always the novelty factor that obfuscates the view of the service being performed.  It’s certainly a fascinating field and one where I think there’s a lot of work to be done in the coming years.”