Rens Brankaert may win talent award with dementia research

One of the four nominees for the talent award offered by Alzheimer Nederland is Rens Brankaert, Assistant Professor at Industrial Design and Lector at Fontys University of Applied Sciences, who specializes in combining technology and dementia. His ‘warm technology’ has come to the attention of the organization that aims to improve the quality of life of people with dementia and their carers. He could now win a hundred thousand euros in research funding. “The nomination is just right for our phase of development. We are growing, and this award would enable us to expand our research.”

photo Vincent van den Hoogen

The combination of technology and dementia has been Brankaert's field even since he graduated from the very department where he is now works part time as an Assistant Professor. In 2015 he gained his doctorate at Industrial Design for work that involved designing the Welthuis Compass, a simple navigation system for people with dementia.

To bachelor's students he teaches the course ‘Design with and for multiple stakeholders’, which focuses on design in complex situations like healthcare, where it pays to bear in mind not only the end user but others, too. “Because you are dealing with family members, nurses, doctors, physiotherapists, the product's maker, the list goes on,” says Brankaert. “All the stakeholders play a different role and they all impact each other. A partner I'm currently working with, for example, is the PSV stadium. We are looking at how we can design a dementia-friendly stadium.”

Not too old to learn

Designing with people with dementia in mind, says Brankaert, gives rise to ‘warm technology’. “This is user-friendly and not stigmatizing.” A good example of ‘warm technology’ stems from the research group Systemic Change in which he is supervising doctoral candidate Myrte Thoolen. Together with others, they designed Living Moments, a device for converting almost automatically digital messages into a printed card, sound and images.

“Living Moments has a printer that produces a paper postcard carrying a message and photo. The user can then insert this into the system in order to hear and see extra information. The person with dementia then has the option of giving a response very simply, in the form of a smiley or a spoken message. What's particularly nice is that this really does increase the person's number of contact moments and it seems we can demonstrate that participants in the current study still have the ability to learn to operate the device.” Living moments will be entered in the TU/e Contest.

Technical expertise

Alzheimer Nederland started out as an organization that sought to tackle the disease. Today, increasingly, it also recognizes the necessity of using technology to support the growing group of people with dementia. Developments are needed right now. The broadening of focus from fundamental research for the long term to include applied research encompassing areas like technology, quick to apply to make life more pleasant, has slowly but surely been achieved.

The idea now is to collaborate with Alzheimer Nederland to expand the TU/e expertise center for dementia & technology. This would become the seventh recognized center in the Netherlands and the only focusing on technology. Brankaert is working towards its launch in the summer.

It is great to win a hundred thousand euros, but the money won't last long. Brankaert has plenty of plans for it. “I want to develop a prototype series of the Welthuis Compass, so that it can become the subject of further research. What's more, I hope this will enable us to increase the target group's involvement with the new expertise center. We already have our eye on a community center in the Oud-Strijp neighborhood. Working with the senior's association KBO Brabant, we hope to build community involvement.”

The Young Outstanding Researcher Award would clearly be welcome. Audience votes and an interview determine the winner. “I feel uncomfortable about rustling up votes for myself. Whatever happens, I'm happy with the recognition the nomination has brought my way. I was nominated by Full Professor Wijnand IJsselstein. This subject is close to his heart.”

You have until April 16th to cast your vote.  

In this video you can hear Brankaert explain more about ‘warm technology’

Young Outstanding Researcher Award 2021 - Rens Brankaert

In this video you can hear Brankaert explain more about ‘warm technology’

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