Design Research Project – The AHA

Design Research Project – The AHA

Design Research Project – The AHA
The AHA by Chat-Kuen Eric Yueng (left) , Jinlong Song (right) | Design Research Project

Eric and Jinlong are completing their Masters in Design at UNSW Art and Design. While they share a background in graphic design, Eric focused on digital media in his undergraduate studies, while Jinlong specialised in interactive design. They also share a belief in the power, and necessity, of design to improve the lives of others. Here is a telling of their project’s story...

As I interview Eric and Jinlong, in preparation for this article, I am sitting in the Tiliqua Press studio cradling an AHA, it’s cushioned felt base sitting comfortably on my thighs. The 3D printed shell has an appealing wood-like texture, and there are buttons that I just want to push…


Which is entirely the point. The AHA is the result of a lot of hard work — of research, design, experiment and more research and more experiment, and all of it working toward inviting the touch. The designers who have committed to this labour are sitting opposite me looking a little concerned. ‘You can push the buttons, but they won’t do anything. We didn’t allow for the tester to use quite so much force.’

AHA is the result of the joint Master of Design project of Chat-Kuen Eric Yueng and Jinlong Song and an ambitious piece of interactive design that they hope will become a friendly, accessible and affordable device that can treat, or at least ameliorate, the behavioural and psychological symptoms of Alzheimer’s and related diseases.

First, some background information, courtesy of their thesis. In 2016 more than 353,800 Australians were struggling with the disabling effects of dementia. They, and their carers, are dealing with their ongoing deterioration and difficulties with memory and cognition, with the ability to converse, to plan, to care for themselves, with the emotional turmoil and changes of personality. The primary approaches for postponing the progression of dementia include medical therapy and psychosocial interventions. But although treatment with cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine can ameliorate memory loss and cognitive problems, the side effects can be off-putting. Non-pharmacological treatments – such as light or music therapy, counselling or physical treatment – have proved effective, but require a huge commitment from carers and other professionals.

Recently, new products have been implemented to address these needs, such as PARO, a Japanese designed therapeutic robot in the form of a baby seal that can learn and respond to its users. But not surprisingly, though immensely cuddleable, the PARO is not cheap.



The brief Eric and Jinlong set themselves was multifaceted; the solution they wanted should be more affordable and less bulky than existing solutions, it should necessitate less commitment from carers, in other words, the therapy device could engage the dementia sufferer for significant periods of time on its own, and it needed to be usable even if the sufferer was non-verbal as the speech centres of the brain are frequently and often severely affected by dementia, and finally to cater to most if not all levels of dementia. To be honest even looking at their rather bulky prototype the solution they have designed is pretty damn elegant. Essentially the AHA is a game based around touch therapy. The device is a series of buttons that respond when touched; they move like buttons should and they light up and vibrate. Importantly the device can be programmed to light the buttons in patterns, the games, of varying complexity for patients to follow. The act of interacting with – touching – the device stimulates the brain with the feedback encouraging memory development/maintenance as they follow and recreate the patterns. Games can be varied in sensitivity to address differences in fine motor control of the dementia patients, and the device will still respond to the interactions of those with very little motor control, providing feedback to touch.

The intention is also to make the code driving the device open source so that other people/designers can add their own games, thereby minimising cost of game development.

The physical design of the device has been carefully thought through. The size and shape of the buttons have been optimised for users, and work is continuing on the feel on the button surface. The size of the device is such that it can be used comfortably by users sitting wheelchairs as well as at tables, where is can be angled for better access to the ‘playing’ surface. User testing with the prototype mechanism has demonstrated that their core idea works. Users are attracted to engage with the AHA, which in itself, threw up a new challenge around a need to ensure the device is very robust.

Eric and Jinlong are building a device of great potential for dementia mitigation therapy. They have demonstrated that it works to engage demented suffers, though more testing still needs to be carried out to determine the long-term therapeutic benefits. Before that they are working towards the next generation prototype, refining, reducing the mechanism in size, and building a stronger device. They have invested many thousands of dollars so far and would certainly be happy for a little – or a lot of – help on that score.

This is an excerpt from Ligature Journal Issue Six. Grab your own copy!