Emerging Tech

Alzheimer’s stole her ability to read. An Alexa-powered chair gave it back

If you’ve got a smart speaker like an Amazon Echo or Google Home in your house, there’s a good chance that you’ve come to rely on it in ways that you never expected, whether that’s setting alarms in the kitchen or controlling your smart home gadgets. But it’s probably not been quite such a meaningful innovation for you as the customized Alexa-powered chair built for 69-year-old Alzheimer’s patient Jacinta Dixon.

Design firm Design Partners recently teamed with Accenture and Amazon to build what they call a Magic Chair for Dixon. Dixon has a rare form of Alzheimer’s, which affects her visual processing skills, meaning that she has developed dyslexia. For much of her working life, she had stockpiled books she planned to read during retirement. Due to her condition, however, she was unable to do so.

“Our challenge was to enable her to reconnect with her love of reading and music in a way that would not require a visual interface,” Mathew Bates, design director at Design Partners, told Digital Trends. “Our solution is a safe and comfortable chair where she can enjoy the books and music she loves. The chair has built-in speakers, controller, processors, and is connected to the cloud. It uses Amazon Alexa voice technology in combination with custom tactile controls to control this.”

Design Partners

The physical interface the chair uses is pretty straightforward. There are three buttons in the armrest that allow Dixon to choose between radio, music, and an audiobook. Each button uses a different tactile reference so that she can link the texture to a particular activity. In this way, Bates explained, activity selection can be influenced by muscle memory rather than by relying on cognitive skills diminished by Alzheimer’s. The Alexa-enabled chair also boasts custom-built “skills,” which can be activated using the buttons without having to say the activation word.

“Form, ergonomics, materials, fabrics, and color were all tailored for the patient, her carefully curated home, and her favorite relaxing activities,” Bates said. “Although full of smart technology, the chair integrates it in such a way that it never compromises on everything a favorite chair in her home needs to be.”

The Magic Chair was built as part of a series called Big Life Fix for Irish television station RTE, the country’s national broadcaster. According to Bates, it was a one-off piece and there are no plans to commercialize the technology at this time.

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