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Sensory, Affective, and Social Experiences with Haptic Devices in Intramural Care Practice

Published on: 26-02-2024

Direct interpersonal contact through social touch is an essential component for human development, communication and social interaction. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this was severely impacted on a global scale when social restrictions, such as social distancing and quarantines were introduced to care facilities in an effort to protect residents.

A study conducted by a team of Vilans researchers in collaboration with the Eindhoven University of Technology examines this issue. Recently published in the MDPI journal, Nursing Reports, the study explores how haptic devices can be used in residential care facilities in times of social isolation by focusing on haptic devices that utilise haptic sensation.

Haptic devices help communicate emotions and social presence

The pandemic restrictions had a negative influence on the wellbeing of people with dementia and others with profound intellectual and multiple disabilities (PIMD) mainly because they were prevented from socially engaging with their loved ones. The absence of these visits was associated with increased feelings of loneliness and a lower overall quality of life. To try to make up for the lack of human contact, some organisations turned to video calling as a way of maintaining social networks and providing stimulation. To enhance the experience, technological solutions involving the use of haptic devices were developed to help communicate emotions and social presence through haptic or tactile interfaces, such as warmth, pressure and/or vibrations. Although, previous work has shown that this technology is effective in communicating emotions and social presence, the applications of these devices are not apparent for special user groups, such as people with dementia living in long-term care facilities.

Tactile sensation and form format

Care professionals, residents, and their relatives from three care facilities in the Netherlands for people with disabilities or older adults participated in the study. Five haptic devices were evaluated, focusing on three different levels of experiences (sensory, affective, and social). The research was conducted in early 2021, with the care facilities still affected by most of the regulations implemented due to COVID-19. The care professionals who participated in the group sessions were invited to be ‘researchers’ for the ‘try-out sessions’ during which they were given a box containing the haptic devices along with instructions for the study and for using the devices.

Residents in long-term care facilities showed signs of calmness and relaxation during video calling, especially with the non-digital haptic devices.

Dr. ir. Sima Ipakchian Askari, senior researcher

Senior Researcher, Dr. ir. Sima Ipakchian Askari: “In our study, the use of a haptic device reportedly supported residents in maintaining their focus on online conversations as well as improving the interaction during video calling. Residents in long-term care facilities showed signs of calmness and relaxation during video calling, especially with the non-digital haptic devices. This resonates with earlier work showing that devices providing haptic stimulation can be effective in increasing the levels of relaxation and happiness among people with diverse cognitive abilities.”

Design Recommendations

The team also provided a set of design considerations for the haptic devices. Since residents from long-term care facilities vary in their needs, context, personal characteristics, and experiences with technology, the researchers found that design requirements should be personalised and adapted to suit individual circumstances.

Our results showed that residents favoured haptic devices with form factors that were easy to hold and that appeared to convey the purpose of its use in an intuitive manner (e.g., the warm hand).

ir. Dianne Vasseur, design researcher

Design Researcher, ir. Dianne Vasseur: “To benefit from haptic devices in intramural care settings, these devices should have an intuitive and familiar shape and use materials that elicit tactile pleasure. These shapes contrast with haptic devices that are more technical in their appearance (e.g., the Hey bracelet, which resembles a smartwatch). Our results showed that residents favoured haptic devices with form factors that were easy to hold and that appeared to convey the purpose of its use in an intuitive manner (e.g., the warm hand).”

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