Health post: Giraff

Yesterday I had my first official project meeting. I went to the offices of Giraff Technologies here in Göteborg, in an industrial area away from the center of town, to see the robot they have designed. This company is the first connection I made when applying for the Watson Fellowship. In response to Sweden’s large aging population, Giraff made a robot to live in the home of elderly people and serve as a caregiver. This allows the elderly to maintain their independence for longer without having to go to a full-service home.

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At this point I was worried that  I was trespassing! There are a lot of small tech companies in these industrial buildings.

I spoke with Dan, the acting project manager and programmer for the new-and-improved Giraff that will debut in 2017. This is the current version:

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The Giraff is a standing robot on wheels, meant to imitate a human. Whoever is remotely controlling the Giraff is able to video-conference through the main screen, so it is as though they are in the room.

The Giraff robot is a way for someone to virtually enter the home of the elderly. Dan explained that it is made to be very simple and easy to control by the nurse or family member on the other end. For example, you might get a Giraff for an aging family member and put it in their home. Then you could call that family member through the Giraff. If they accept the call, you can Skype with them while following them around the house.

This requires learning how to “drive” the Giraff using a computer program. There are 3 controls: where the Giraff is looking, the tilt of its head (it can be angled to look down or up at things), and location. The Giraff’s camera allows you to see the person you’re caring for as well as your general surroundings. By holding down the mouse in the map of the room, you can move all over the space. It’s fairly easy to drive the Giraff and the program is simple enough to learn in a couple minutes. I tried driving the Giraff myself, which was a bit odd as I had it coming towards me!

The Giraff is less common than I expected; it’s currently living in 6 homes. A couple of those homes are in Italy. The rest of the Giraff robots are in universities around the world, where students are analyzing their capabilities and usefulness. I would love to talk to a student who has studied this robot. I’m curious how Giraff Technologies has been attempting to expand and encouraging more people to adopt this robot; I’m sure it would have something to do with cultural attitudes towards medical technology. Dan wasn’t sure, but mentioned that one of the main challenges of getting Giraff into the home is that before someone considers it, their doctors, family, and friends alike have to be convinced that it is a good idea. It requires effort from all parties.

Near the end of our interview, I asked Dan to compare Sweden and Italy in terms of ease of getting people interested in the Giraff. Though it’s a sweeping generalization, I wanted to know if one country seemed more receptive to the Giraff than the other. He thinks that Sweden is more receptive because there is more contact with technology in general here. No matter what age people are, they are connected. “I was in Italy 2 weeks ago,” he said, “and you see a lot of elderly people don’t care about smartphones or tech like that. Here in Sweden, a lot of people use technology. It’s a mindset.”

I still have questions about the user testing aspect of Giraff’s development. I want to know how, if at all, the creators of this robot included public opinion in their design. I’m meeting with the owner of Giraff Technologies tomorrow for lunch, so hopefully I’ll get answers to these broader questions then.

Finally, Dan mentioned the small city of Västerås, where Giraff has another office. I had read about it last year when I first researched the Giraff and assumed it was pronounced as written – “vas-ter-as.” When Dan pronounced it, I realized that I had ignored the accents. It’s actually pronounced just like the main fantasy land in Game of Thrones – “Westeros”! That was a thrilling moment.

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