Sherbrooke company develops digital autism assistant
Sherbrooke-based company Hopchild Technologies was the recipient of $200,000 in financial aid from the Provincial Government on Monday to support a $682,000 research and development project aimed at improving the lives of children living with Autism Spectrum Disorders. The company, which was founded in 2016, aims to support children on the autism spectrum and their families through projects integrating advanced modern technology such as robotics, microelectronics, and artificial intelligence.
Diane Groleau, President of Hopchild Technologies, and her partner, Marc-antoine Pelletier, presented the company's project as a part of the funding announcement, explaining that the work combines wearable sensors, an interactive digital avatar, and a networked database of readings in an effort to measure behavioural trends in children with autism spectrum disorders.
“It builds a global image and awareness of the child's reactions to the world around him,” Pelletier said, describing the project as a one-stop digital healthcare system.
The project partner said that Hopchild worked at first with robots designed by a company in France to be the user-interface, the aspect of the digital healthcare system that children would interact with. That approach, however, made the system costly and inaccessible. Instead, the interface is now a digital image that can be loaded onto a tablet or smartphone, combined with a wearable sensor device similar in size and shape to a wristwatch. The character on the screen interacts with the user in various ways based on heart rate readings from the sensor and the user's own responses to questions. Data from the interactions is then stored in the database and can be used to observe trends in agitation and physical health over time.
According to Groleau, the hope is that with enough time and data, individuals, their families, and their healthcare providers will be able to use the information in a predictive way to help avoid meltdowns and improve social integration.
“This is a project catered to the needs of the individual,” the President said, noting that the move from robots to a digital avatar means that the character children interact with could be customized to be more meaningful for them, if desired.
The project was praised by the Provincial Government both for its innovative use of technology and for its efforts to improve the lives and lower the costs for families living with Autism Spectrum Disorders.
“Thanks to this initiative, healthcare professionals will be better equipped and will have access to digital technologies well suited to helping young autistic children in our region and across the province,” said Saint-francois MNA Guy Hardy. “We are proud to support the success of this important project.”
Hop-child’s digital healthcare system is about to begin a three year “living laboratory” stage in collaboration with Giant Steps school in Montreal, during which its effectiveness will be evaluated in a real-world setting. At the end of that time, the company hopes to see its project reach the general population.
Marc-antoine Pelletier and Diane Groleau of Hop-child Technologies with Saint-francois MNA Guy Hardy