A hug in time - from T.Jacket

SINGAPORE - For autistic children, a hug at just the right moment can be highly effective in soothing their heightened levels of anxiety.

The reassurance of a gentle embrace can even avert a tantrum.

But what if a person is not available right at the moment that hug is badly needed?

Enter Dr James Teh, 32, and his team at local start-up T.Ware, who have produced a jacket, known as a T.Jacket, that replicates a human hug.

The T.Jacket is a device that is operated by a smartphone application which controls air inside the jacket, inflated by a small motor.

When the air bags inflate, deep pressure is applied to the wearer, creating a hugging sensation. The user can vary the rhythm and pressure of the "hug" according to his preference with just a few clicks.

The jacket can be activated from any location using the Web.

Although T.Ware is still developing the final version of the device, the jackets can be pre-ordered on the firm's website and will be available by the end of the year. It is being made in Singapore, Malaysia and China.

It all began with Dr Teh's PhD research project on haptic technology, the reproduction of the sense of touch, at the National University of Singapore's School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Initially, the use of this technology for autistic children did not occur to Dr Teh.

He had been mulling over the fact that many parents were spending more time at work with less time for face-to-face interaction with their children. That sparked the idea of simulating the sensation of being hugged and the comfort that comes with it - anywhere and any time it is needed.

But the founder of T.Ware wanted to take his research beyond the laboratory, and use it to address consumers' needs.

"It came to a point where I wanted to see the new invention being adopted by the market, by real consumers. I was looking at how I could apply this technology for the benefit of others," he said.

It was a chance meeting with an autism centre in Clementi in 2011 that made him realise his invention's ideal application.

"I spoke to the teachers, the principal, the therapists, and that's when the therapists mentioned that they use a compression technique, meaning they give the children firm hugs or squeeze their joints, when they feel that they (the children) are on the verge of throwing tantrums or getting anxious," Dr Teh explained.

Autistic children with problems paying attention or focusing on the task at hand can then wear the T.Jacket to receive hugs to calm them down.

"The theory is that the pressure will help to moderate their alertness level to an appropriate one to help them focus on the task," he said.

The tool is useful for teachers at schools for autistic children, as one remote can control multiple jackets. Parents can also monitor their autistic child's behaviour as the jacket will send information on the wearer's movements to a smartphone application.

T.Ware has a confirmed Japanese distributor, Space 96, which has been in the special needs field for 20 years.

The firm is also conducting trials with a local hospital and the Thye Hua Kwan Early Child Intervention Centres to help autistic children with the jackets in a classroom situation.

It even received orders from far-flung places such as Belarus, Chile and Argentina on its website and is in talks to distribute its jackets in Australia and Britain.

But convincing investors that it would be an effective device was an initial hurdle for Dr Teh and his partners, Mr Lai Sep Riang, 26, and Mr Lin Wei Liang, 32.

Out of the 40 investors the team approached in a year, T.Ware finally found two corporate investors who forked out about $500,000 to fund the business.

It also received a grant of $250,000 from Spring Singapore.

Dr Teh has no regrets leaving academia as his invention is now helping families improve their lives. "There's a lot of satisfaction when parents say that they're so glad we're developing this."

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