OSLO — In 2015, Karen Dolva learned from a friend who’d worked briefly in a pediatric hospital ward of the loneliness that afflicts children during long-term hospital stays. The conversation inspired Ms. Dolva, who was working as a digital consultant at the time, to research the effects of social isolation on young people.
Within weeks, she and two tech industry colleagues, Marius Aabel and Matias Doyle, had formed No Isolation, a tech start-up that aims to develop technological solutions to societal problems like loneliness.
At the London Design Biennale, the Norwegian exhibition includes the newest version of the company’s AV1, a desktop unit designed to look like a robot, which can connect a sick student to the classroom. “We were surprised,” Ms. Dolva, the company’s chief executive, said in a Skype interview. “We couldn’t really grasp that technology hadn’t already solved this problem.”
The unit, whose role Ms. Dolva likened to that of a video game avatar, has no intelligence of its own. But its white plastic housing covers a camera, microphone and speaker that a student can operate from a smartphone or tablet. Specially positioned motors allow the camera in the unit’s head to scan the classroom a full 360 degrees, or to angle the head upward to face a teacher or fellow student during conversation. (There is even a “whisper” feature that lets the student engage in a hushed exchange with nearby classmates.)
A light atop the unit’s head shines white to show that it’s streaming sound and video, blinks to alert a teacher when the student wishes to speak, and can be turned to a “sleepy mode” blue that indicates the student is present but wishes to be left alone. The connection is made using Wi-Fi or 4G cellular network via live streaming that is encrypted by No Isolation’s servers, and for security reasons the device can neither record nor store images or sound.
At a little more than 10.5 inches tall and weighing 2.2 pounds, the unit can sit on a desktop or easily be taken along on school outings, Ms. Dolva said, adding that its 4G compatibility means it maintains connectivity wherever it is transported, like a cellphone. Also like a phone, it has to be charged.
Rachel Johnson of Northamptonshire, England, said it immediately enabled her 16-year-old daughter, Zoe, who has chronic fatigue syndrome, to attend school alongside friends after three years of home schooling — and to engage in vital teenage social interaction.
“She chatted with some girls during break time, just normal teenage conversation, but this was something she hadn’t done since becoming ill in 2014,” Ms. Johnson wrote in an email.
“It did cause some problems at the beginning because Zoe was reminded of everything she had been missing out on. It caused a lot of tears and upset; lots of regret and ‘if only,’ but that soon passed and it became a very positive experience.”