When a wheelchair becomes a bed

On a research trip to Japan, Sabina Misoch, Head of the Interdisciplinary Competence Centre for Ageing, presented her Living Lab project to international scientists and industry representatives. But the meeting almost didn’t happen.

Marion Loher

The workshop at the Tokyo International Forum was scheduled for Monday. But on the weekend before, it was still unclear whether it could even take place – the category 4 storm Hurricane Lane was heading to town. «The day before the workshop, we weren’t sure how violent the storm might be», says Sabina Misoch in the Skype interview. For almost four weeks, the head of the Interdisciplinary Competence Centre for Ageing (IKOA-FHS) has been on a research trip in Japan, where she is meeting scientists and industry partners to talk about new technological solutions and to connect with potential research partners.

The workshop at the Tokyo International Forum provided a good opportunity for her to do so. The gerontologist also got to present her Living Lab project at this meeting, which she had been keen to do. The hurricane had tailed off on Sunday night and the workshop could eventually be held. In addition to Sabina Misoch, other research and industry representatives had been invited to the meeting to discuss robotics applications and technological assistance solutions for the elderly.

Japan relies on technology

«Along with demographic change, we are also seeing a growing shortage of skilled workers in Switzerland and a dwindling number of informal care-givers, because women – understandably – are becoming more career-focused», says the scientist. This is a situation that Japan is also seeing at present. «But unlike Switzerland, the Japanese tend to rely heavily on technical solutions», says Sabina Misoch. Switzerland is more cautious in this respect. «In a small study, we looked into which emotions different robotic solutions evoke in elderly people in Switzerland.»

Among other things, the study participants were shown films in which robots are washing items for people or bringing them something to drink. «While few of them find it difficult to bring drinks, most of them struggle with the care side», she says. «The more personal and intimate the situation, the less popular the robotic solution – especially when the robot is an android, i.e. very life-like.»

But where does this strong dislike of robots come from in our culture? «It’s probably a fear of the unknown», says Sabina Misoch. «Unlike the Japanese, we’re not used to having our questions answered by robots when we visit a shop.» She also believes that the associations with robots are more positive in Japan. For example, in science fiction films, the robots usually save mankind; in our fantasy scenarios, however, they are perceived more as a threat or as something that can’t be controlled.

«Living Labs entail a lot of effort.»

According to Sabina Misoch, the workshop participants were «very interested» in the Living Lab project. Operated by the Interdisciplinary Competence Centre for Ageing, living labs are a counter-model to conventional artificial laboratories. Apparently there had already been a similar project in Japan 20 years ago, but it was scrapped. The scientist is not surprised by this. «Substantial effort is required to run Living Labs on a long-term basis», she says.

«Several data collections are needed before, during and after the test phase. The test subjects need to be supervised and interviewed. The analysis is time-consuming, which also makes the test runs relatively expensive.» Nevertheless, in comparison to traditional labs, Living Labs enable more valid claims to be made about usability and acceptance. A delegation from a Japanese research centre wants to get a first-hand impression of the project this November.

Exciting lectures, innovative projects

The workshop proved worthwhile for Sabina Misoch, not just because of the great interest shown in the Living Labs. «The other lectures were also exciting.» For instance, the director of the Department of Assistive Technology Research Institute revealed an innovative way to involve elderly people in tests and create innovative projects together.

And Panasonic’s General Manager Robot & Rehab Business presented a bed that automatically transforms into a wheelchair at the touch of a button. «A fantastic innovation», says Sabina Misoch. «I can easily imagine these beds in Switzerland, too, although more for use by institutions than people living at home.» Initial talks have already been held about the possibility of testing them in Switzerland.

Pictures: Sabina Misoch and JISC Japanese Industrial Standards Committee.