Casper the social robot was one of the innovations on display at the AGE-WELL On the Hill event in Ottawa.

When Elizabeth Audette-Bourdeau began developing a communications platform called Welbi, she was inspired by her late grandfather. “I felt I had to take responsibility for other families like mine,” she explained at a recent Ottawa evening to promote innovations to help Canadians age successfully.

Her grandfather was living in a retirement home on the South Shore of Montreal, more than an hour from his family in Eastern Ontario. Keeping in touch was difficult, as he found many communication technologies frustrating.

Senator Art Eggleton was the sponsor of AGE-WELL’s inaugural Day on the Hill. Photo: AGE-WELL.

Welbi, on the other hand, is streamlined. Retirement home residents can connect with their families using an interface that analyzes incoming messages and suggests short responses. For instance, if a relative sends a message asking whether someone has a headache, the app may show “Yes” and “No” buttons to click.

The platform also helps the residents communicate with each other and reminds them of social events at the facility. “It’s a growing need,” said Audette-Bourdeau, co-founder of Welbi’s startup company in Ottawa. “The retirement homes actively approached us to develop the software.” She and her colleagues are currently testing the bilingual application in Casselman, ON.

Audette-Bourdeau is one of hundreds of researchers and trainees who receive financial support and mentorship from AGE-WELL, a federally funded Network of Centres of Excellence. The organization showcased Welbi and seven other leading-edge technologies on Parliament Hill in May.

Elizabeth Audette-Bourdeau is the woman behind Welbi as CEO and co-founder. Photo: AGE-WELL.

At the event, a crowd quickly clustered around Casper, a prototype “social robot” developed by Dr. Goldie Nejat and a team at the University of Toronto, in partnership with CrossWing Inc. The humanoid robot has an LED-animated mouth and eyebrows to help it convey three emotions – happiness, surprise and sadness. Casper can also use conversational gestures, such as waving.Researchers are hoping it will learn from its interactions with humans and finetune its “emotions” in response.

Casper is designed to help people with cognitive issues carry out daily tasks, guiding them through the steps of activities such as brushing their teeth or remembering to take medications. An onboard computer can display a step-by-step recipe, for instance. “The goal is that Casper won’t be a passive robot,” said Shayne Lin, a graduate student on the team. The researchers hope to have Casper available commercially within five years.

Elsewhere in the Centre Block meeting room, visitors also gravitated to ABBY, a large, wall-mounted device designed to appeal to people in long-term care facilities who are living with dementia. Equipped with tactile elements – such as a steering wheel, various buttons and knobs, and a photo of a cat complete with lifelike fur – it aims to foster interaction.

In a care setting, residents wear Bluetooth beacons that identify them to ABBY. That allows the device to play multimedia content that the specific resident (or a family member) has pre-loaded to the device, such as music, photos and videos that may spark memories.

Dr. Andrea Wilkinson, part of a team that worked with Ambient Activity Technologies to develop ABBY, noted that the pilot test in six Ontario care facilities showed the device helped reduce anxiety among people with dementia. “We saw lower agitation, lower aggression,” she said.

Cognitive issues are one major area of focus for AGE-WELL. Assistive technologies for people with physical disabilities are another. For instance, Dr. Pooja Viswanathan has developed a sensor system can be added to any type of wheelchair and alerts users—with vibrations, visual cues or sounds—when the chair is in danger of hitting an obstacle.

Her company, Braze Mobility Inc., launched the product in October 2017 and has already sold out its first production run. “We are creating jobs and have brought on two full-time employees in just the last year,” she said.

AGE-WELL also supports projects to help those caring for people with Alzheimer’s, ALS and other conditions. One of those is Huddol, a social network for caregivers developed by a Montreal-based company. Huddol has roughly 10,000 users across the country, who share stories of their caregiver experiences. Dr. Janet Fast of the University of Alberta, who is collaborating with Huddol, hopes to use it to improve caregivers’ lives. “The data that are captured by the platform could be used … to better understand caregivers’ journeys,” she explained.

AGE-WELL includes more than 150 researchers from 37 universities and research centres across Canada. It has more than 225 industry, government and non-profit partners.

Got a great idea that can benefit Canadians as they get older? Check out our story about the National Impact Challenge.