Helping underserved communities: TWare uses hugs to change the lives of those living with autism

04 Jul 2017   

TWare’s Tjacket has been widely used in special needs schools to help some children focus better. This also allows teachers to conduct lessons more effectively. Photo: TWare

The tech start-up’s jacket delivers customisable hugs to people with sensory disorders

The plan was to create a jacket that would hug children whose parents were away. Today, that jacket has a greater social purpose: soothing individuals with sensory disorders, such autism.

By providing customisable deep pressure hugs, the jacket – created by Singapore-based wearable tech company TWare – helps sensory seeking people settle down quickly and improve attentiveness for activities such as reading and drawing; while sensory over-responsive individuals can use the jacket to better cope in situations where they may feel stressed and anxious, such as in crowded places.

TWare’s Tjacket is now used by more than 800 people across the globe in Singapore, USA, Belgium, Holland, Germany, UK, Hong Kong, Japan and Australia, as well as in nearly 50 centres in Singapore and overseas.

TWare has also recently developed Airawear, an intelligent massage jacket that helps to relieve back pain suffered by office workers, long flight passengers, and long distance drivers.

What inspires this social enterprise and keeps them innovating? TWare co-founder & CEO Lin Wei Liang shares more about the company:

TWare co-founder & CEO Lin Wei Liang (centre) with his team. Photo: TWare

1. How was TWare started?

Lin: The technology was developed first in the Keio-NUS CUTE Center research lab as a remote hugging jacket for parents to remotely hug their kids when they are away, for example, on an overseas trip.

The lightbulb moment came when our co-founder, Dr James Teh, was exhibiting this project at conferences, and an occupational therapist saw value in using this technology to calm individuals suffering from sensory disorders (e.g. individuals with autism), especially those seeking proprioceptive and tactile sensory input, via a remote "hug" or deep pressure. Without sufficient sensory input, these individuals tend to display sensory seeking behaviour (e.g. rocking their bodies, flapping their arms or hyperactivity).

Inspired by the potential social impact of our technology, the team decided to further investigate the needs of these individuals and how our technology could help them.

2. How does TJacket work?

Lin: Tjacket, controlled via a smartphone app, provides adjustable, automatic and discreet deep pressure therapy, which has been widely used by occupational therapists to help with sensory processing issues, anxiety disorders, hyperarousal, restlessness and chronic stress. These are common characteristics found among individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and Sensory Processing Disorders (SPDs).

Deep pressure therapy, which is a continuous firm pressure on the body, may be used to calm, decrease arousal and increase the attentiveness of an individual.

The jacket has embedded airbags that inflate discreetly to provide deep pressure on the body in a lateral manner, while sensors in the jacket monitor a user’s activity. Data recorded is then sent to our cloud programme so progress can be monitored and shared.

Photo: TWare

3. What are some of the problems faced by children with ASD and how is TJacket helping to solve them? How is it typically used on a daily basis?

Lin: Many children with ASD often have sensory sensitivities and can be overwhelmed by sounds, lights, movement and smells in their environment. This is distracting and distressing for them, and can prevent them from focusing, learning or interacting with others.

Tjacket has been widely used in special needs schools on a daily basis. With the jacket on, some of these children can sit down and focus better. This also allows teachers to conduct lessons more effectively.

There are other children who use it as part of a regular routine (before and after school, or before bed). Adult users usually use it whenever they want to relax, or before situations where they are likely to be anxious.

Watch Happy User: Ethan 02:54

4. How do you come up with your designs? What is your starting point, and thought process?

Lin: The team consists of engineers and designers with deep knowledge and experience in haptics and wearable technology. We collaborate with senior occupational therapists, university researchers, clinical psychologists and special needs educators working with individuals diagnosed with Autism, ADHD and other SPDs.

We started the design process by quickly putting together a rough but working prototype using off-the-shelf parts bought locally (e.g. floating vests for children), off-the-shelf jackets and in-house fabricated electronic boards and 3D printed housings. We wanted to build it as quickly as possible so that we could let professional therapists test them and iterate based on their feedback.

As we got more feedback and had a more concrete idea of the design requirements, we started to engage factories in China and Malaysia to help us make samples and go into mass production.

5. What are some challenges in terms of developing your product and business?

Lin: Tjacket has to be tried first before caregivers can decide whether to invest in it. This leads to a longer purchasing decision time and also takes more time to get widespread usage and testimonials.

The trial is needed as the efficacy of Tjacket is best determined after it is worn and deep pressure is activated. Also, autism has a very wide spectrum – Tjacket may work very well for some individuals and yet may not work for others.

Watch TWare – Technology that touches lives 02:37

6. What are some lessons you learnt when developing your jacket?

Lin: Developing our jacket is not just about developing the product. It is also very important to develop the traction for the product. This means to thoroughly understand how stakeholders make purchase decisions and potential obstacles that may occur. Only then can we develop the right sales channels and business models.

7. What are your plans for 2017?

Lin: A lot of our on-the-ground efforts (working with the occupational therapists and children) are currently in Singapore. We wish to expand these efforts to overseas markets through strategic partnerships with the local occupational therapy consultancies, special needs tools distributors, and special needs schools especially in the US.

Moreover, we have been very focused on the ASD market, but we would want to expand further to help other individuals suffering from ADHD, anxiety disorders, PTSD, and the elderly with dementia. Clinical trials using the jacket are ongoing in the US for PTSD in Veterans. When these trials are completed, the results will be published in peer-reviewed journals.

In addition, we have also used the same core Tjacket technology to develop Airawear, an intelligent massage jacket that helps to relieve back pain suffered by office workers, long flight passengers, and long distance drivers. We will be fulfilling the orders to our backers from our successfully funded Kickstarter campaign and expanding our sales effort for this mass consumer product in 2017.

Watch AiraWear | User Sharing @ DBS Innovation Festival 02:07

8. Is there a particular beneficiary of TJacket whose story has inspired you the most? Could you tell us more about him/her?

Lin: Willow May, a parent and adult with ASD in the UK, had written that the TJacket had changed her life.

She wrote: “It's easy to control it from my phone and it ‘looks after me’. I feel like I'm having a huge cuddle. I feel calmer, less anxious and when I have meltdowns or get overexcited, it reassures me, and makes me feel incredibly safe and secure. It also grounds me. … this jacket is a life changer.”

Her story truly inspired me at the time when I needed to know if what we had designed is making any difference to people's lives. At the very least, we are making an impact to a person's life. Her story makes it all worthwhile.

TWare received a grant from DBS in 2013 to subsidise the Tjacket for local users, support pilot testing and ready the product for international markets. The Tjacket is currently in use in nine markets worldwide. The social enterprise is currently co-working at DBS Asia X.