By Heidi Lee
Ryerson’s Inclusive Media and Design Centre’s research project WebMoti is a system that helps students on the autism spectrum maintain a comfortable presence in a social or educational setting. WebMoti is currently facing problems with funding which is hindering them in reaching out to those in need of the system.
People on the autism spectrum can experience sensitivities to a wide range of stimuli such as sounds, sights, touch and smells. And an unfamiliar environment, such as a classroom, can contribute to these sensitivities as certain stimuli can be overwhelming. The WebMoti allows students with autism to attend class from the comfort of their own home.
The WebMoti system consists of a video conferencing system—the WebChair, which is combined with a fiber tactile system—the EmotiChair.
A robot with a camera is connected to the system. Students can use the game controller to tilt the camera left and right at home. It’s like playing a video game in reality with sounds and interaction.
“Students are familiar with the controller since they have been playing games,” said Livius Grosu, one of the developers of WebMoti. “Multiple studies have shown that gamifying the classroom increases student engagement in learning.”
The fiber tactile system works through sound pillows on the EmotiChair as they vibrate based on the audio frequency received from the actual classrooms. Students are able to feel their teacher talking and their peers chatting. This way the students are learning to manage their sensory environment.
If a student finds a classroom environment too overwhelming, they can easily disconnect themselves from the setting, while still maintain a physical presence in the classroom because the WebMoti robot is their representative. The student is in control of how much stimulation they receive by turning off videos, audios, and vibrations.
Deborah Fels, the principal investigator of WebMoti and the director at the Inclusive Media and Design Centre, said the project is funded by the Ontario Centre of Excellence, but the project will run out of funding in December.
Fels said the team is trying to find more funding so developers could make adjustments to the WebMoti robot’s appearance.
“I want to add a hand to the robot that could be raised for students to ask questions,” said Fels. “I would also like to make one more WebMoti robot.”
In terms of underfunding, the crew also had a hard time getting approval from schools and finding students to work with them on the project.
Graham Smith is one of the founders of WebMoti. He has been working with students using the WebMoti system in Holland. He said it is a difficult area of research because the participants are children with autism.
“We started working with the Toronto school board, but there was a change in staff and they said it was too risky,” said Smith. “We ended up cooperating with the French school board in Ontario.”
To solve the problem, Ahmad Adeel, the marketing research assistant at WebMoti, will reach out to Toronto district schools with programs for students with autism in November.
“Once schools have the knowledge of what WebMoti does, it could cater a lot better for children with autism,” said Adeel.
In Holland, the WebMoti project has successfully helped over 400 children with autism to fit in social settings.
Smith said the key to the whole project is to integrate children in the classroom, not to isolate them.
“We had one child in Holland using the system who had never had any friends,” he said. “His mother came home one day and found out he was playing video games with his new young friends. He was able to overcome his fears and made contact with others.”
He said he wished to see that happen here in Ontario.
“It is heartwarming to see young children who had a hard time integrating into social situations are able to become more integrated and overcome their social disability,” said Smith.
Unlike a normal video conferencing system which can often feel immobilizing, the vibration of sound, the movement of the camera, and the gamification of learning make the WebMoti system a viable choice for students with autism and their educators.
Students on the autism spectrum can not change their circumstances, but schools can choose to accommodate them.
Additional files courtesy of WebMoti
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that WebMoti “ran out of funding in December 2017.” The Eyeopener regrets this error.