Three National University of Singapore (NUS) graduates have used their tech skills to create a special jacket that can help children with special needs.
The jacket simulates a hug by applying deep pressure points to the wearer's body, which in turn produces a calming effect. This has been found to decrease hyperactivity in some people and is proving very effective with autistic children.
The three graduates - Mr James Teh, Mr Lin Wei Liang and Mr Lai Sep Riang - formed a company called T.Ware in 2011 to further develop and produce the garment, known as a T.Jacket. The firm has since produced 50 such jackets, each made to order, but demand from special needs schools here and overseas means it will ramp up production and make 1,200 this year.
Local customers include therapists, special needs schools and the parents of autistic children. But T.Ware is also keen to find international buyers. A hospital in Sweden recently ordered some jackets to help patients with social disorders and aggressive tendencies. A distributor has been secured in Japan, while one is being sought in Australia. The idea for T.Jackets came about when Mr Teh, 32, was designing a system for parents to hug their children remotely through the Internet, while carrying out research for his PhD dissertation on wearable technologies.
This produced an early prototype of a remote hugging system. After completing his PhD studies, he formed the company with his two friends. Mr Teh, now T.Ware's chief executive, told The Straits Times: "At that time, my two co-founders and I were looking at commercialising the invention. We were looking at how this technology can really help to solve problems and improve lives, not just as a cool idea."
Some early concepts included using the jacket to simulate physical force when a person plays games remotely with friends, to using the touch simulation technology in wristbands to provide notifications from a smartphone.
"All of these ideas were pretty cool, but to us, they lacked the do-good impact that we wanted," said Mr Teh. It was a meeting in 2011 at an early intervention centre catering to children with autism that gave the friends the idea of designing a system to help provide deep pressure.
"That meeting, coupled with some personal experiences with families having autistic children, and knowing how much technology could potentially ease the burden of not only the children but also the caregivers, compelled us to design assistive wearable technology for the autism community," added Mr Teh.
T.Ware then carried out a pilot study to investigate if applying deep-touch pressure through a T.Jacket could improve the attention levels of autistic children during lessons in the early intervention centre.
"Results showed that in some children, we observed a greater than 30 per cent gain in attention levels during lessons where the deep pressure was applied," said Mr Teh. "This result also showed the potential for the T.Jacket to help students learn better in school if their attention levels can be improved." A mobile app or Bluetooth connection controls the jacket's pressure and allows the wearer to keep track of usage.
All this data can be downloaded to build up a picture of how effective the jacket is. The T.Ware team began working on a prototype in early 2012. The money they had made from the 50 jackets they sold allowed them to make further improvements and they are now on Version 5. While the design and electronics are all handled in-house by T.Ware, which now employs nine full-time staff, the jackets themselves are made in China.
"Very few start-ups venture into making products and I can see why," said Mr Teh. "It's very tough having to take care of software, hardware, supply chain issues and so on. It makes the whole thing more complex."
The long-term plan is to have multiple partners so the firm is never reliant on just one supplier. The jackets retail at $899 each, although DBS Bank has given T.Ware a grant allowing it to heavily subsidise the garments to make them more affordable for selected special needs schools. Mr Teh believes the jacket could also help people with stress disorders.
"In an urban population, there is a sizeable percentage of people with stress-related illnesses. The jacket, as a form of emotional communication, can be used as an effective stress reliever," he noted.
T.Ware also sought help from the public to generate ideas. It ran a competition last year asking people to come up with new ways to use the T.Jacket. The winner suggested giving people a heat-generated hug when outdoors.
Her father worked the night shift at a port here and she wanted him to feel warm and cosy during his shift. Mr Teh added: "We see ourselves coming out with a wide product range, including armbands that squeeze your sore muscles.
While there are rivals operating in this space, we differentiate ourselves as our products are designed for mobile use, when people are out and about." The elderly are another target.
"We want to help (them) with problems like dementia. I have parents who are growing older and this problem could become bigger for our society over time," said Mr Teh. "The elderly are becoming more isolated due to technology. We want technology to connect humans again."
The biggest challenge in the early life of T.Ware was getting people to believe in the new technology, which hampered efforts to raise funds. As the firm has grown, the challenges have changed.
"We need expertise but in Singapore, it's really hard to get the right talent."
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