Childhood cancer and chronic disease generate high levels of stress and anxiety capable of hindering the child’s development as well as negatively impacting the everyday lives of parents and siblings. Childhood cancer can be a traumatic event for the entire family. During the long and intensive treatment phase, if conditions allow, the child spends most of the time at home with family members. This has led to an increasing demand for innovative ways of supporting families when not under direct professional observation. This project aims at exploring how to design solutions that can ‘live’ with these disrupted families at home and be capable of sensitively and tactfully encouraging interaction and communication between family members.
Mr.V the Spaceman is a character designed to sensitively encourage family members to interact and preserve space for quality time and relaxation at home during stressful periods. Mr.V works like a gumball dispensing machine, dispensing activities instead of gums. The interaction with the object is designed to be simple. Family members are invited to think about activities they enjoy (e.g., play a board game, watch a movie) with their loved ones and note them down.
They then place the notes in plastic ball containers and manually insert them into Mr.V. During the day, Mr.V drops the balls containing the notes in the form of surprises at unexpected moments to let the family members share the activities throughout the day. Mr.V is also equipped with a simple timer interface and embedded sensors to collect data about its use.
Mr.V was deployed in the homes of ten families with children receiving cancer treatment. Each family used Mr.V for a week and shared insights on how they experienced the object, whether it was appropriate in their situation, and how the object managed to integrate into their everyday life as a partner.
The machine data were used to speculate on how computational intelligence could potentially contribute to assisting Mr.V in better adjusting to these families’ varying needs and circumstances, to collaborate with them, and the ethical implications of such future development.
This research also provided insights for the definition of guidelines to design so-called Tactful Objects, namely, interactive artefacts and intelligent objects capable of using their expressivity to empower vulnerable users in sensitive settings.
Mr.V the Spaceman was developed within the ‘Meedoen=Groeien!’ project, a collaboration between HandicapNL, Princess Máxima Center of Pediatric Oncology, and Delft University of Technology. The research was funded by the Dutch Friends Lottery (Dutch: ‘Vriendenloterij’).