Sunday, June 11, 2023

The Power of a Hug – How a Lockdown Funeral Inspired Two Kiwi Inventors

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How tragedy led to inspiration and a desire to help others, from two incredible young Kiwi inventors

When Gayle Lee couldn’t attend a loved one’s funeral thanks to Level Four Lockdown, she was heartbroken.

She found herself watching the funeral through Zoom, which she described as a moment of huge emotional disconnect: “It was the most distant feeling – not being able to physically connect with people gives a new dimension to grief and suffering,” she says.

Drawing inspiration from the isolating experience with grief and loneliness in times of mass, enforced isolation, the concept for Heartfelt was born, and the Kiwi student and her best friend Jessica Vea resolved to help others separated from family and friends during tough times. We had a chat to the students and innovators to hear more.

Gayle and Jessica

First of all, what you have created is amazing. Can you tell us the story of how Heartfelt came to be and the personal experience you had that was the inspiration?

We both participated in AUT’s 2020 Lexus Design Awards paper to create a product that adhered to this year’s theme of “Design For a Better Tomorrow.” The paper challenged us to create concepts that would anticipate a challenge of the future, and address that challenge with an innovative solution.

Gayle had a family friend that passed away during our level 4 lockdown, which meant that her family had to attend the funeral through a live stream. This was a jarring experience, since funerals are generally attended in person when you’re there to offer your support and condolences.

The fact that you were watching something on a screen automatically distanced us from the events, similar to how you know most movies are fictional – like Sharknado would never happen in real life. It was strange being disconnected from such an emotionally charged event and it got the ball rolling with our thinking about how we could create something that helped others in a similar situation – those separated from their loved ones.

How does the device work?

Developed with the idea of a virtual hug in mind, Heartfelt is a product with two individual parts, each designed to be kept by separate people. The small, heart-shaped device acts as a means of wordless communication between two individuals, with the ability to warm up when both are being held at the same time.

The device will also be able to pick up on the heartbeat of the person holding the corresponding piece, enabling them to feel connected, appreciated and seen, even when they cannot be together physically.

Our product will work long-distance and come in pairs. While Person 1 holds their device in their hands, Person 2’s device will warm to the body temperature of Person 1. The temperature range will reflect the person holding it, and if not being held, will drop to room temperature (neutral). This seeks to imitate what it would be like holding or hugging another person, as the warmth of another human being cannot be replicated through a video call.

There will also be 2 LEDs per heart and will pulse to reflect both you and your loved one’s heartbeat, imitating the effect of holding their hands where your breathing and heart rate will eventually sync. We want the heart to mimic the feel of human skin, and so we plan on making it slightly squishy with the help of a silicone exterior.

The Heartfelt prototype

Who has the most use for your product?

Our primary target market is the elderly and their families, as due to the COVID-19 pandemic they are the most affected since they are separated from loved ones in retirement villages or through isolation in their own houses.

We are also considering healthcare workers as a target market, as while the situation is thankfully manageable here in New Zealand, those in other countries are not as fortunate. Many individuals in the healthcare sector are overworked and are having to isolate from their families. We hope that our product would help them in some way by letting them still experience ‘hugs’ from their loved ones, giving them comfort that they are being supported and that they have people who are thinking of them. 

Post-Covid, we also hope that Heartfelt will also be given to military personnel and those whose situation or occupation does not allow for them to be with their loved ones for an extended period of time. For those on the go, we’re also working on a more portable and wearable concept for the device. 

Was it developed specifically with Covid-19 in mind? 

We initially had another idea that we wanted to make our graduation project, however, since we had our first lockdown in March we had to change our project so that we could operate under lockdown restrictions. Therefore, we thought it appropriate to create a project based on our current situation which resulted in Heartfelt.

Heartfelt is a device which enables families to be able to still physically connect through touch during isolation. With it, we hope to minimise the impact of anxiety, loneliness and trauma held by both medical professionals on the front lines and the general public, by connecting them with friends and loved ones through more tangible interactions such as warmth and heartbeats.

Since hugs are such an integral part of physical comfort and support, we took aspects of it such as warmth, presence and personal connection, and combined them into an experience which we would define as a ‘virtual hug’. While video-calling helps, most people seem to miss the warmth that a physical hug brings, and we hope to reproduce that comforting feeling. 

You’re both students in AUT’s Design and Creative Technologies program – what’s the dream for the future? 

Through AUT’s Lexus Design Awards paper, we have had the opportunity to be mentored by Simon James and Scott Bridgens of Resident, a highly successful, globally focused design company. The insights Simon and Scott have been able to provide us with, from an industry perspective, are invaluable – their product considerations are consumer focused and extremely realistic, which you can sometimes miss when you’re in the university bubble. The mentoring sessions were the biggest drawcard for us both when deciding to take the Lexus Design Awards paper.

Our dream for Heartfelt is to create a fully working and functional prototype within the next few years. With our working prototype, we aim to connect with New Zealand local rest homes and hospitals. We are both planning on doing our Master of Creative Technologies next year, to further Heartfelt as we feel there is more we can do with this concept. However, as recent Bachelor of Creative Technologies graduates, we aim to also have jobs in the industry to get more experience developing products as well as to obtain funding for Heartfelt as a business. 

How did the two of you meet, and how has your relationship changed this year as you’ve worked on this project together? 

We had already worked together on two other projects before this, and so we knew how we each operated. We were best friends before starting our project and so working together has been easy despite being not able to physically see each other for a while.

Funnily enough though, since transitioning to calling each other to discuss our project, it has gotten to the point where Jess’ family thinks that I [Gayle] was Jess’ secret boyfriend because of how frequently we called. We’ve since cleared the misunderstanding, but it’s still one of the funnier stories Heartfelt has given us!

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