Building virtual wellbeing in a living room

Simon Gallo working at home. Credit: S. Gallo (EPFL)

Simon Gallo working at home. Credit: S. Gallo (EPFL)

On March 12, 2020, COVID-19 restrictions shut down the EPFL campus. Simon Gallo, a postdoc with EPFL’s Brain Mind Institute and co-founder of robotics start-up Metaphysiks Engineering, got stuck at home with a prototype that needed upgrading. With commercial deadlines looming, Gallo knew that is was time for hands-on science at home.

Founded in 2019, Metaphysiks Engineering was born out of a collaboration between Olaf Blanke’s Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience and Hannes Bleuler’s Robotics Systems Laboratory at EPFL. The startup’s builds silicon-touch, “haptic” devices that can stimulate a sense of touch through vibrations and changes in pressure and temperature.

Metaphysiks Engineer’s first product were haptic-tech insoles that go in your shoes to facilitate relaxation and meditation. The devices have multiple uses, from helping users to fall asleep all the way to aiding stroke patients rehabilitate after a stroke. The insoles proved to be a success, and commercialization appeared on the horizon.

But then, COVID-19 hit Switzerland and the EPFL campus went into lockdown. No access to labs, equipment, or materials. But Simon Gallo, one of the founders of Metaphysiks Engineering and a postdoc with Olaf Blanke’s lab, decided that it was time to adapt and, keeping with EPFL’s spirit, innovate.

What does the device do?

The device provides an artificial sense of touch. It is integrated in a foot platform, so you sit down, place your feet on it, and it emulates the sensation of waves under your feet. We use virtual reality, but without vision. You only experience touch and sound.

The product that we created with this technology, which is called “STill”, is a support for mental wellbeing. STill brings you into a peaceful environment to improve sleep, relaxation and meditation. You really believe you are by the sea or lake. Hearing the sound of the waves. Feeling the water touching your skin. In addition, an expert guides you through the sensations you are experiencing. Everything the expert says happens under your feet, making the practice more enjoyable and much more effective.

To measure wellbeing, we use validated questionnaires to capture the subjective aspects of the experience, whether you are relaxed or not, what kind of thoughts you're having. We also use physiological and neural measures, such as breathing patterns and EEG.

What prompted you to develop this device?

During my PhD I had the chance to test and witness how haptic technology could aid visually impaired people perceive their surroundings and spinal cord injury patients regain the sensation of walking. That showed me there is a huge potential in haptics for something that hasn't been done before. Other than vibration, there is almost nothing on the market.

We really decided to make the shift towards wellbeing when a meditation expert, Dr Diego Hangartner, got involved. At that time, I was working with Giulio Rognini and Professor Blanke, also co-founders of the startup, on combining the sense of touch with other sensory modalities to create the unique experience of having water waves touching your skin. When Dr Hangartner tried the demo he said, " If we combine it with meditation, it will be amazing." He was really enthusiastic about it.

So what started as a little experiment, took form and got more and more attention, even from companies in the wellbeing field. The more we kept on pushing in that direction, the more we realized it was the right one.

What challenges did you meet with when working from home?

The basic issue is that this is not the lab; it's my home. And it's a small one. We have a bedroom and a living room. So, when I unpack all my stuff, it takes up the entire living room. And when it’s time to eat, I need to pack it all back. You cannot work on a permanent setup, that you leave and get back to whenever you want. Each time you have to pack it, order it, and later reassemble it, which takes a lot of time. I have to keep everything in suitcases so that I can store it away and we can still live in this space.

I also don't have access to all the tools we would have in the lab. I had to accept that what I tested at home wouldn’t be as precise as I would like, not 100% certain. But it still helps a lot. Another issue is getting the right components delivered here, which seems simple but can be quite complicated. It's little things.

What would you say you have achieved while working from home?

I feel that it has been a very productive time. Not being able to have meetings in person freed a lot of hours to just focus on a single thing. That was refreshing. It allowed us, as a startup, to really boost our product development, which we couldn't have done before because we were mixing many activities at the same time. And sometimes you feel like everything is equally important.

What advice would you give to other scientists who are working at home?

You need to make it clear that you're not really at home; you're at work. You get up, you get dressed. No pajamas. Your living room is now your work place. And finally, make sure you have a full fridge.

Thank you, Simon, for your time!