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Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute Research Guide

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Quality of Life Technology


The mission of the Quality of Life Technology (QoLT) Center is to create intelligent systems that enable older adults and people with disabilities to live independently. QoLT is a partnership of Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh that was established in 2006 as a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center (ERC). QoLT is the third ERC to be led by CMU; it is the first whose principal department is outside a college of engineering. Other contributing CMU departments include the Human Computer Interaction Institute, the Heinz College and Social and Decision Sciences. At Pitt the lead department is Rehabilitation Science and Technology with major contributions from the University Center for Social and Urban Research, Bioengineering, the School of Nursing and the Institute on Aging.

Many previous attempts to use sophisticated assistive technology failed for lack of basic understanding of human functions (psychological, physiological, physical, and cognitive) and how to relate them to the design of intelligent devices and systems that aid, interact, and work in symbiosis with a person. Whereas the goal of traditional robot autonomy is intelligence to function with minimal human involvement, the goal of QoLT symbiosis is for intelligent systems to function in concert with a person. That fundamental difference defines the QoLT Center research agenda and requires QoLT systems to be person-aware in addition to being environment-aware.


The Center's research is done by teams who do user-centered design of new technologies in four main areas: cognitive reasoning and remembering, independent living at home, independent transportation, and individual physical capabilities. Our research approach is to create and evaluate prototypical systems through partnerships with care providers and potential end-users, so we can simultaneously explore the technical, clinical, social and economic dimensions of new technologies. QoLT systems take many forms: they could be a device that a person carries, a mobile system that accompanies a person, or a technology-embedded environment in which a person lives.

The central QoLT theme is person-system symbiosis in which a person and engineered components are mutually dependent and work together. While QoLT R&D yields intelligent systems, it is a departure from traditional robotics research that strives for increasingly autonomous systems, i.e., for which reducing human involvement is an implicit goal. In contrast, QoLT systems work in the daily environment with a person and for a person and in fact often depend on that person. There are several subordinate themes.

Our vision encompasses relating human sensory, cognitive, and physical function, as well as behavior and the science of everyday living, to the design of intelligent systems. Stakeholders – end users, practitioners, caregivers and industry – drive the selection, definition, design, development, testing, and evaluation of systems that can make measurable positive impacts on the quality of life. Together, stakeholders and engineers arrive at common understanding of requisite system capabilities that in turn motivate technology development and knowledge creation efforts that can overcome barriers to proliferation of four classes of QoLT Systems that have the potential to affect millions of people. Those are described in the table at the end of this section.

Capabilities of the QoLT Systems in turn motivate more fundamental research that is conducted in four inter-related thrust areas.

QoLT and Industry

The Assistive Technology (AT) industry today is by and large fragmented. There are a few mid-size corporations, and literally hundreds of small, niche companies. Even the mid-size corporations (i.e., gross sales $500 million to $1 billion annually) invest little in research and development and only occasionally collaborate with universities. Instead, they acquire smaller companies to obtain new technology and intellectual property. This behavior is characteristic of the health technology industry in the U.S. in which products are regulated by the FDA and sales are largely determined by reimbursement levels set by Medicare. The QoLT ERC is contributing to the change of this paradigm. Many QoLT products have a consumer base extending well beyond AT consumers to a much larger segment of the general population: people without physical, sensory or cognitive deficiencies value them for convenience, entertainment, leisure and other mainstream applications. This has two positive effects: 1) removing the yoke of conspicuousness that turns off would-be consumers of AT and 2) bringing economies of scale, which are associated with large markets, mass consumption, and corporate giants with established marketing, manufacturing and distribution to drive costs of the core technology down dramatically. In fact, some mainstream companies (including Sanyo, Samsung, Nissan, General Motors, Intel, Honeywell and Bosch) have joined our QoLT Industry/Practitioner Program with such potential in mind. The QoLT Center has witnessed stronger level of engagement of mainstream companies in the assistive and disability markets (including our consortium Members GM, Nissan, Sony, Samsung, Panasonic, Bosch, and Honeywell) and has been a leader in increasing it. Our investigations of the non-technical considerations of QoLT are an additional attractor to technology provider companies.

In contrast to the conventional ground-up approach of waiting for researchers to form start-up companies, we take proactive steps to deliberately create new QoLT companies. In early 2008 we launched the “QoLT Foundry,” a pilot program whose goal is creation of companies that are marketing new technology products that support older adults, people with disabilities and/or their care providers. The Foundry, which was initially funded by CMU's Vice President for Research and a grant from the Benedum Foundation, is led by an Executive-in-Residence (an experienced entrepreneur) who helps to drive the adoption of these disruptive technologies. The near term continuation of this program has been made possible by additional support from the Benedum Foundation and an Innovation Grant from the NSF of $1.5 million over the next three years. A comprehensive process has been implemented for the commercialization of innovations from QoLT research. This process includes the discovery and vetting of projects, ensuring IP protection strategy is implemented, defining business models, advising on strategic positioning, building experienced management teams, creating alliances, and identifying market and funding opportunities. Since inception in early 2008, the QoLT Foundry effort has resulted in 8 spin-off companies. The existence and output of the QoLT Foundry has proven to be an attractor of new consortium members, and an additional reason prospective companies have become engaged. They are able to see concrete evidence of the commercialization commitment and effort as the Foundry portfolio has identified over 30 opportunities currently in the process. In December of 2009, QoLT was awarded an NSF EEC/ENG grant ‘QoLT Foundry – New Business Development Generating from an ERC's Research' to continue and expand the commercialization and other beneficial efforts for the center, technologies and our member organizations. This is a three year effort that, at the end, will place the QoLT Foundry on a firmer path toward self sustainability.

Education and Outreach

Our education and outreach vision evolved from the recognition of unique characteristics of QoLT: real-life narratives, integration across multiple disciplines, and direct impact on diverse stakeholder groups. We aim to create a growing community of engineers, scientists, practitioners and consumers who are intellectually prepared and motivated to create, assess, and apply technology to benefit people with disabilities and older adults. Our vision embodies the transformation of all stakeholders from technology artifact users to technology inventors and influencers. We aim for a transformation with far greater efficacy and diversity in the means by which technology has a truly measurable impact on quality of life.

In collegiate and graduate school levels, the dialog stemming from QoLT systems development gives technologically oriented students clinical training and experiences to motivate and guide their work, and gives clinically oriented students technological training and experiences to help them understand how best to use technology. Unique to QoLT is for all students to be trained in relevant social sciences and ethics and to have exposure to real end-use settings so they can make informed decisions about the implications of their work throughout their careers. At the pre-college level, QoLT provides familiar, real-life narratives that inspire young engineers-to-be. For professionals, QoLT provides life-long learning that extends well beyond the technical scope of the topic itself. In informal learning environments, QoLT presents unique opportunities for the general public to interact with the technologies of their lives, to engage in conversational explorations of both technological change and attendant ethical issues, and to gain a sense of personal empowerment through technology understanding.

A significant paradigm shift in this area is for people with disabilities to make major contributions to QoLT research, rather than only being beneficiaries of its outputs. Recognizing the distinct and invaluable perspectives that they offer, the ERC is initiating educational programs to harness intellectual contributions from people with disabilities. This has positioned the Center to be a leader in the movement to encourage students with disabilities to pursue educational opportunities and eventually careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). We have a mandate from NSF to generally affect increases in the percentages of under-represented population groups in STEM. We have already met, and in multiple categories significantly exceeded, the national percentages for women, persons with disabilities and (most recently) under-represented racial minorities for faculty and all levels of students. Those successes are attributable in part to the facts that QoLT career and life goals are particularly strong attractors for women and persons with disabilities and that health professions (excluding medicine) tend to be more diversity balanced than the engineering professions.

Activity Summary

QoLT has to-date been involved in a substantial number of activities/projects, resulting in a broad footprint across their research space. A summary listing is provided in the table below. (Click to enlarge.)

Continue Reading: Transportation: RERC-APT


  1. Christopher

  2. Drew

  3. Fernando
    De la Torre

  4. Alexei

  5. Martial

  6. Jessica

  7. Takeo

  8. Siddhartha

  9. Srinivasa

  10. Aaron

Project Images

  • First Person Vision

  • DriveCap