A comprehensive approach towards assistive technology

A virtual assistant that helps to organise your day; glasses which give you tips on household tasks when you are not sure of the next step; a flat which can notify doctors or carers in an emergency. These are all possible scenarios for the use of assistive technology in the day-to-day lives of people who rely on support.

To develop and test these support systems, the Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC) has been cooperating with the v. Bodelschwingh Foundation Bethel as a strategic partner since 2011. The research institute CITEC specialises in technical systems such as robots and avatars, which are attuned to human needs and can be used intuitively. For nearly 150 years the v. Bodelschwingh Foundation Bethel has been championing those who are dependent on help, support or assistance and runs services and facilities in eight federal states in Germany. In their joint project, CITEC and Bethel are developing technology to help people live more independently – especially if they are elderly or are living with a disability or chronic illness.

The new systems are meant to support the user in leading an independent life, but also be able to ask for help. They are personal assistants and follow peoples’ orders, rather than dictating what to do. The key point is that they also get to know the habits and preferences of their user, learn and can react on an individual basis.

A central idea of the cooperation is that people are not ‘prescribed’ a technology. Instead, ideas developed by the research institute CITEC should measure up to the practical needs of users. Only ideas that are socially accepted are realised: What new technologies can and do users want to employ in their daily life? On the one hand, this concerns people who are supported by the v. Bodelschwingh Foundation Bethel and their relations. On the other hand, this is relevant to the staff at Bethel as technological innovations are meant to ease their work.

An earlier CITEC project was concerned with the fact that people with cognitive impairments often forget to carry out daily routines in the correct order. Even small distractions can be unsettling, causing the person to forget what comes next in the routine. Carers often step in, although the person is physically able to carry out the task independently. 

One of the tasks that the “Taped” project assisted test persons with was cleaning teeth. The name stands for “Task Assistance for Persons with Cognitive Disabilities”. An “intelligent” sink observes teeth brushing with cameras and sensors, and offers tips. If the system detects that the person has forgotten to add toothpaste before teeth brushing, it will advise the person to “use toothpaste” both visually and audibly.



The custom built 3D training environment “OctaVis” places the user in a virtual supermarket. Through memorising a shopping list and finding the items in the supermarket, users train their brain. The target group for this rehabilitation is people with brain function disorders who have problems with their memory, spatial orientation or visual perception as the result of a stroke, for example. The CITEC researchers developed the project between 2009 and 2013 and tested it in the Bielefeld Evangelical Hospital, Bethel. It originates from the project CITmed (Cognitive Interaction Technology for Medicine).


The project “Adamaas”, also funded by the BMBF, is developing electronic glasses that assist the user with daily tasks, such as cooking. CITEC is working on the project with the eye-tracking specialists SensoMotoric Instruments (SMI).

The glasses have a display that guides and supports the user when they bake a cake, repair a bicycle or practice yoga, for example. The system is able to detect if a problem arises for the user during a task, and shows through its display how to move forward with it.  To this end, a display in the glasses shows texts, images and a virtual assistant.

Adamaas glasses are particularly aimed at senior citizens with mild dementia and people with learning difficulties. The system should also enable them to participate in the workplace. The partners of the project are the v. Bodelschwingh Foundation Bethel, proWerk and Altenhilfe Bethel. Members of these organisations are involved in planning how assistive concepts can be transferred to the glasses.  In addition, volunteers test how effective the glasses are in everyday practice.

The “Kompass” project, which began in 2015 and runs until 2018, develops socially cooperative digital assistants to support persons with special needs, guiding them through their daily lives.

Not only should the assistants organise appointments, but also help prevent the user from social isolation. They can support the user in keeping in touch with other people through video calls or remind the user to contact friends or relations. 

The main aim is that the virtual assistant should recognise changes in the user’s state of mind at an early stage and respond with sensitivity – whether it is confusion, lack of understanding, or scepticism. The appearance of the avatar can be changed in age or gender, to suit the user’s wishes.

CITEC and Bethel are cooperating with the University of Duisburg-Essen and the Bielefeld University of Applied Sciences on the project.  The researchers are also addressing ethical and legal questions: To what extent can digital assistants intervene without patronising the user? What data should they be allowed to record? What questions of legal liability are present?

KogniHome benefits from an earlier joint project by CITEC and Bethel: “Virtual Assistants and their Social Acceptability” (VASA).

This project, which was also funded by the BMBF, developed a virtual assistant called “Billie” from 2012.  The avatar appears on a screen and assists in planning appointments and helping to structure everyday life. The user tells Billie which activities and appointments need to be planned. Billie then records them in a calendar, and reminds the user of upcoming dates. 

In VASA, the scientists investigated the kinds of etiquette, gestures and facial expressions required so that Billie can make itself understood by senior citizens and persons with disabilities. The VASA subproject “Verstanden” (Understood) was concerned with the question of ensuring optimum understanding between avatar and user. How can the avatar manage to understand the user’s questions and requests correctly, and make itself understood to the user?

A major project has caught the attention of the national media in Germany, an intelligent apartment under development by CITEC and the v. Bodelschwingh Foundation Bethel with twelve further regional partners.

The project is called KogniHome and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research is funding the Cluster of Innovation from 2014 to 2017. In October 2015 KogniHome was awarded in the national initiative “Germany – Land of Ideas”.

Built into the apartment is “smart” technology enabling it to advise its residents on fitness and diet, remind them of appointments, or suggest clothing suitable for the weather conditions as they leave the flat. It appears as a virtual assistant on a screen in the living room and the kitchen.  The residents can communicate with it naturally with gestures or speech – in a similar way to a person.  Among other concerns, a subproject with Bethel investigates the kind of support test persons want from the apartment. It establishes which technology appears to be useful to them and what they do not want.