Engineering solutions to life’s problems

Tippy Talk works through a series of screens allowing a user to create a message indicating a mood or want

A revolutionary new device which utilises automation technology to assist people with disabilities such as autism communicate verbally has earned Limerick Institute of Technology (LIT) student Rob Laffan the 2015 Engineers Ireland Innovative Student Engineer Award.

Inspired by his four-year-old daughter Sadie, who has autism, Laffan developed the device which allows a user to select preloaded wants, needs and feelings on a tablet device and communicate them via a text message to a parent, friend or carer.

The invention came about as part of his final year project as an automation and control engineering student at LIT. “I got the idea in around October of last year,” he recalls. “I always knew the project would be something around Sadie. I spent a day-and-a-half a week on its development. I worked on it with Sadie improving and perfecting different aspects and completed it in April.”

The Tippy Talk platform works through a series of screens which allows a user to create a message indicating a mood or want. “The first screen shows pictures of daddy and mummy and this gives Sadie the choice of who she wishes to communicate with,” Laffan says. “The next screen shows a sub-menu of a list of desires, wants or needs such as food, drinks, toys, activities, and feelings. The third screen shows a series of further sub-menus such as different drinks or food types. When she has made her selections from the three screens it gets articulated as text in an SMS and might say something like ‘Hi daddy, I’m hungry, can I have an apple please?’”

The results so far have been quite remarkable and delightful. “I worked on the device with Sadie and developed it according to her needs. Sometimes a button on the screen was too big and was a bit distracting and sometimes we had to adjust the colours. It was a slow process but we got there in the end. When we gave it to Sadie to use we were getting random text messages for the first day or two but within two days she started sending real messages. In effect, it was our daughter saying her first words to us. It was marvellous.”

Quite adept

Sadie has now become quite adept on the Tippy Talk, even down to expressing her displeasure with her parents. “The other day Sadie wanted to go out into the back garden but it was lashing rain so she wasn’t allowed. I got an SMS saying ‘Daddy, I feel mad’. It replicates verbal communication for her.”

A major advantage of the system is that it allows her to communicate with her parents even when they are not at home. “A few weeks ago I went out to the chipper to get food,” Laffan recalls. “Sadie had originally said she wanted chicken nuggets but when I was about half-way there I got a text message from her telling me to get onion rings instead. She can communicate with us wherever we are.”

And this has had added advantages beyond being able to communicate desires. “It can be very hard with Sadie to determine when she is sick and what part of her might be giving trouble. We have a screen which allows her to point to 15 different parts of her body and tell us what hurts or doesn’t feel good. Also, her frustration levels have fallen dramatically. Before this Sadie could lead us to a room with maybe 30 different toys in it and she could have a complete meltdown with the frustration of trying to tell us which one she wanted to play with.”

Sadie is also responding to the system in other ways. “A short while ago we got a text telling us she wanted to go to her nana’s house. When we went looking for her we found her standing at the front door ready to go.”

Run by Engineers Ireland and sponsored by Siemens the Innovative Student Engineer of the Year Awards celebrate excellence in engineering degree courses. The competition is judged on innovation and technical knowledge and is open to students of all levels studying an accredited engineering degree programme. The winner receives an Engineers Ireland Excellence Award and €2,000 prize money.

"This project is a perfect example of why engineers are in such high demand globally," says Caroline Spillane, director general of Engineers Ireland. "Skilled engineers are advancing technology and developing innovative solutions to overcome issues in industry and in society. This award showcases the outstanding engineering talent in Ireland."

“Siemens wants to inspire the next generation of Irish engineers through the promotion of science and engineering,” says Siemens head of communications Michael O’Connor. “The Innovative Student Engineer Award provides a unique platform for students to demonstrate innovation and creative thinking. We are committed to ensuring that young people have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in and meet the challenges of a technology-led future.”

This is not the only plaudit Laffan has taken for his invention. He also won the Enterprise Ireland Student Entrepreneur of the Year and an award from the International Society of Automation. He is hoping to use the investment and support which have come as part of the two prizes to develop the device for a global market.

“This is not purely autism-related,” he says. “It can be adapted for use by people with full cognitive functions but who are unable to communicate verbally. The next stage is to acquire the hardware to put Tippy Talk up on and then to validate it with other users. I have got a place on the Enterprise Ireland entrepreneurs accelerator programme and I am using that to develop the device. I am currently working on a business plan and I am hoping investors will come on board to help push the product out on a global scale.”