Ever talked to your dog and wished she would talk back? Well, now there are some seniors who are talking to their dogs and getting an answer. It’s all because of the hard work and dedication of an MIT Mechanical Engineer, now entrepreneur with a big idea.
GeriJoy is the brainchild of Victor Wang and it was born out of concern for his own grandmother. Alone, homebound and isolated from family and friends in Taiwan, Wang’s grandmother started talking about suicide. Wang started working.
Wang is no ordinary grandson. At the age of six, Wang was programming role-playing games for MS-DOS.. He received a Bachelor of Applied Science from the University of British Columbia, majoring in Mechatronics Engineering and minoring in Commerce, and was awarded the Wesbrook Scholar designation. After working in environmental research, aerospace manufacturing, particle physics, medical robotics, and being an officer in the military, Wang won the Canada Graduate Scholarship and earned his Master of Science at MIT. There, he researched human-machine interaction for the NASA space telerobotics program.
With this background in telerobotics and human-machine interaction research, Wang decided he could make a difference for his grandmother and thousands of elders and their families. But first he’d need to do some research. Live pet therapy research described the benefits of animals for seniors, but Wang knew his own grandmother wouldn’t be able to care for a live pet. “Pet therapy has proven mental health benefits,” Wang says. “Same with artificial pets.”
The human-machine interface is tricky, especially for those with disabilites. Wang learned this first hand as he tried to communicate with his grandmother over Skype. Realizing that many seniors, are not technologically savvy, Wang decided that his virtual companion would need to have a unique interface. GeriJoy was born. “We make talking dogs for lonely seniors. They are apps on a tablet, but think of them as a friend in a picture frame. Just talk,” he says with a grin.
But GeriJoy is not just a “talking dog.” “ We keep it engaging by driving conversation through our live human staff [providing] true intelligence and compassion,” he says. “[The puppy is a] real buddy, not boring. We’re turning senior care on its head with a companion that seniors care FOR [and] feel responsible for. [There is potential for] Huge mental health gains.”
Funded by investment angel, Esther Dyson, Wang presented GeriJoy at the Connected Health Symposium in Boston in October 2012. The product launched in December 2012 and is available now. Below is a video of a senior in a nursing home facility interacting with his “Buddy.”
The product has the potential to bring families together. “We connect entire families by having the pet talk about family photos, updates, memories. Engagement is compounded by family content in the form of photos and updates which the pet presents in conversation,” Wang says.
The human staff is available through the talking puppy 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Although it is an “entertainment” device, it is proving its worth in ensuring the safety of seniors. According to Wang, “We detected our first incidence of caregiver abuse (screaming at the senior woke up the GeriJoy Companion) and reported it to the customer, who ended up ending the offending caregiver’s contract early and getting replacements based on our advice. Pretty powerful impact for an adorable little puppy.”
For more information on GeriJoy, please visit the website.
This article is based on #HCHLITSS twitter chat transcript, email correspondence and discussion at the Connected-Health Symposium 2012.