Multidisciplinarity and creativity
The HumanLabs network was set up to improve quality of life of people with disabilities, providing support and advice for the development of tangible technological solutions tailored to suit their needs. In 2019, the MyHumanKit association, in partnership with Ariane Group, launched the Fabrikarium: an event where an Ariane Group employee with a disability pairs up with a multidisciplinary team, working together to devise and manufacture their own technological aid.
For the 2020 edition of the Fabrikarium, four projects were selected, including Exofinger, the aim of which was to design a hand orthosis for the project manager, Bastien, who has tetraplegia. The multidisciplinary team around him was made up of engineers from the Inria Grenoble Rhône-Alpes research centre (Laurence Boissieux, Christophe Braillon and Roger Pissard-Gibollet), researchers from the Camin project team at the Inria Sophia-Antipolis research centre (Christine Azevedo-Coste and Clément Trotobas), employees from Ariane Group, members of the MyHumanKit and Saint-Pierre HumanLabs, and a documentalist from Floss Manuals.
The challenge they were set was to devise and develop for - and with - Bastien a motorised finger orthosis, to allow him holding a pen, something that is not currently available to buy anywhere.
Exofinger - an accessible thumb orthosis
The first stage, itself no mean feat, was to determine Bastien's exact needs in advance of the Fabrikarium. This involved preparing for the event by developing a few building blocks using material available to the general public: servomotors for activating the orthosis, an Arduino controller and motion sensors for triggering. The option that was eventually selected was a glove that guides cables driven by a motor positioned on the forearm, enabling Bastien to bring his thumb into contact with the edge of his index finger in order to grip objects.
When it came to designing and producing the object, which was of course tailor-made, particular attention was paid to the design of the glove, in addition to making sure it was comfortable and usable. The glove was then instrumented using basic components that had been prepared in advance, taking feedback from Bastien on-board. As Roger Pissard-Gibollet explains, “users are at the centre of the project, the aim being to solve their problem a way as simple as possible”, while adhering to the needs expressed by the individual. Because the project is opensource, all of the manufacturing details were documented and are available to view on the MyHumanKit Wikipedia page.
Following initial feedback from Bastien, the team is currently working remotely on a second version of the device. As Christophe Braillon explains, they must now “industrialise” the concept by miniaturising it and, most importantly, working on its ergonomics in order to make it suitable for daily use.
Engineering and research - working together
The Exofinger project is an example of a project at the point where research, technology and science outreach all converge.
The Camin project team, shared by Inria Sophia Antipolis - Méditerranée and the University of Montpellier, is one of 25 Inria project teams working on research subjects linked to disabilities. Christine Azevedo-Coste, who heads up the team, has sought to bring people with disabilities closer to science and technology by incorporating individual stakeholders (clinicians, people with disabilities, carers, etc.). They have close ties with the Saint-Pierre HumanLab, whose fabmanager was recently made a permanent member of Camin.
For projects with a significant technological component like Exofinger, Camin has been working for a long time with the SED at Inria Grenoble Rhône-Alpes, which has provided support to researchers for experimentation and software development.
This type of project represents an opportunity to explore different types of collaboration between research and the world of Fablabs, of which HumanLabs is an example, on the subject of disabilities. It also promotes reappropriation of the technology among the wider public. Through these collaborations, Christine Azevedo-Coste and Roger Pissard-Gibollet have also sought to tackle an ethical problem - to develop simple, cost-effective solutions for people, the majority of whom have no access to recent innovations and whose needs don’t come directly under the umbrella of scientific research but involve the development of software or equipment.
What we want is the society to be able to benefit from this knowledge and expertise in order to be able to move from individual needs to more far-reaching assistance solutions.
Inria’s science directorate provided financial support for the team to participate in Exofinger, and has extended its support to future initiatives by setting up an Inria exploratory action (HLI) for hosting this type of project.