BabyVibe: Vibrotactile Garment for
Infants with Autism

2010-2011

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Background

The School of Fashion was approached by the Department of Psychology and the Multimodal Immersive Learning for Kids (MILK) Lab at Toronto Metropolitan University to develop an experimental prototype to mediate communication between infants with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and their caregivers. Our team was challenged to design and develop a jumper that integrated electronically controlled vibrotactile and audio synchronization to achieve this goal.

My Role

In this project I researched fabrics, developed patterns, created technical illustrations, constructed prototypes, revised designs, and constructed the final sample garment.

Challenges

This specialized garment was developed to support vocal emotional communication in infants with Autism Spectrum Disorder, a neuro-developmental disorder that is characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, and by a propensity for restricted and repetitive behavior. Technological components were engineered to enable synchronized auditory and vibrotactile stimulation and mediate caregiver-infant communication. The system takes acoustic input from a lapel microphone worn by the caregiver, passes it through an analog filterbank housed on a circuit board and directs the output to separate voice coils, which provide a light vibro-tactile sensation when pressed against the skin. Low frequencies are directed to the lower back and high frequencies to the upper back. Mapping sound in this way treats the back as though it were a giant cochlea with a separate place code for each frequency. The entire system (circuit board, battery, wireless receiver and voice coils).

Joining this multidisciplinary team, our challenge as designers was to incorporate the vibrotactile system into a garment suitable for infants. This involved consideration of infant mobility as well as the caregiver's ease of dressing/undressing the child.

 

Limitations

The power source required to activate the voice coils was large and cumbersome. It was not possible due to budget constraints to create a smaller battery pack that provided sufficient power. Small modifications between the Alpha and Beta prototypes reduced the bulkiness of the battery packs but our team was still limited by this feature when developing a streamlined design.

Methods

The electronic components were provided to our team at the beginning of the Alpha prototype development, along with a sketch of a proposed design. Our team reviewed the project goals and established a new, simplified design based on a combination of secondary research and personal user experience in dressing infants. A store-bought infant undergarment (onesie) was modified and usability testing on an 11-month old neurotypical infant highlighted areas for improvement.

To achieve hospital-grade Canadian Standards Association (CSA) approval, the Beta prototype introduced further modifications recommended from the Alpha usability test. Usability testing of the Beta prototype was conducted with two neurotypical 12-month old infants.

Practice-Based Research

Designs were developed based on user criteria and tested, then revised for improved performance

Usability Testing

Garment prototype was tested on infants to confirm usability and function

Results

 

Alpha Prototype:

For the Alpha prototype, a ready-to-wear infant undershirt was adapted, keeping the lower segment and fabricating the upper torso in lycra knit with mesh side panels. Pockets, pouches and enclosures were size appropriate to secure the technology. Two circuit boards and respective battery packs were built into the wrap-style front opening. The back of the garment incorporated the wireless receiver and sixteen voice coils arranged in two opposing wave-like patterns, to simulate a caregiver’s caress. Wires connecting the voice coils to the front circuit board were housed in flexible rubber tubing, spanning the right shoulder. A series of “S” hook closures were included for adjustability to ensure a snug fit for a range of infant sizes. This initial prototype was tested on an 11-month infant with neurotypical development, with recommendations for subsequent design refinement.  

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BabyVibe Alpha Prototype
Copyright 2022. Not to be used without permission.

Beta Prototype:

Design modifications were made to meet CSA approval. Pockets for the voice coils were made deeper, connecting wires were further secured with a second layer of fabric accessible by two invisible zippers. Rubber tubing was replaced with a soft fabric casing neatly secured to the body. Thermal protection was provided in the battery pack area. Other design features focused on enhanced performance and comfort: use of smaller, lightweight battery packs, deeper compartments with tab closures to stabilize technology, a full-length separating zipper to facilitate donning/doffing, incorporating zipper shields and a placket to prevent skin injury, a gusset and longer leg style to provide improved mobility comfort. Primary colors, blocked to pattern pieces, replaced clinical white, creating a child friendly appearance and improved aesthetics.

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BabyVibe Beta Prototype
Copyright 2022. Not to be used without permission.
Babyvibe.jpg
BabyVibe Beta Prototype During Usability Testing
Copyright 2022. Not to be used without permission.

Impact

Alpha and Beta prototypes of MILK were successful in mediating communication between mothers and normally developing infants. In particular, parents were able to hold infants' attention for longer periods of time when the vest was turned on. Observations also suggest that the latest prototype has substantially increased mobility and comfort in infants. CSA approval was granted in July 2010. 

Publications

Dell’Agnese, L., Tullio-Pow, S., Schaefer, K., Andrews, A.J., Ibrahim, W., Stein, R., Russo, F., & Boudreau, J.P. (2011). Wearable technology:  Prototype development of a garment to mediate communication between caregivers and infants with autism spectrum disorder. In ITAA 2011 Proceedings: Celebrating Inclusivity & Innovation (pp. 14-15). Philadelphia, PA. Winner: Lectra Award for Faculty Research

Reflection

Limitations of technology impacted the design output of this garment, as well as the comfort and mobility of the infant when wearing the garment. The bulkiness of the battery packs was a source of frustration during product development, but our team worked with the resources available at the time. With new developments in this kind of technology, revisiting this design today would likely mean a more compact, streamlined product.