Special jacket delivers 'virtual' hugs

Pressure vest is world's first with smartphone app activation

Dr James Teh, 34, demonstrating the T.Jacket – a pressure vest that can remotely “hug” people with special needs when they are feeling distressed to calm and console them. The jacket can also be activated by the wearer.
Dr James Teh, 34, demonstrating the T.Jacket – a pressure vest that can remotely “hug” people with special needs when they are feeling distressed to calm and console them. The jacket can also be activated by the wearer. PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN

WISH you could hug a loved one who is not by your side?

That thought first crossed Dr James Teh's mind when he was dating a Singapore Airlines stewardess, who is now his wife, six years ago.

"I missed her when she was flying around the world. And I'm a scientist. When faced with problems, we try to creatively solve them," said the computer and electrical engineering researcher at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

And that idea grew into something bigger - a jacket that can remotely "hug" people with special needs to calm and console them.

The T.Jacket, as it is called, is a deep-touch pressure vest that uses air bags inside it to simulate a hug for its wearers.

While there are similar inventions on the market, it is the first in the world that can be controlled via a smartphone app using bluetooth. It has a range of 10m.

It helps those with conditions such as anxiety, autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dementia cope with their anxieties and improve their attention span.

Said Dr Teh, 34: "The jacket can be used in a very discreet way that is convenient, and can apply different levels of pressure, helping wearers to be more functional in their daily lives."

The vest is the star product of Singapore start-up T.Ware, which Dr Teh co-founded with two fellow NUS graduates in 2011. So far, about 500 have been sold.

Today, T.Jacket, which is manufactured in China, is used in over eight countries and territories, including Australia, Indonesia and Taiwan.

Its Singapore clientele includes more than 20 special-needs schools, homes and therapy centres. Dr Teh estimates the invention has helped about 600 beneficiaries and caregivers around the world.

Mr Alex Liau, 32, clinical director of special-needs therapy centre Nurture Pods, said T.Jacket has been effective for some of the children he works with. He said: "The jacket puts pressure on major muscles to calm them down."

T.Jacket is also lighter than other therapeutic garments weighted with lead.

Said Mr Liau: "The aim is not to wear the vests forever. Once the child shows better behaviour, we can reduce the pressure."

The hugs from T.Jacket have a calming effect on Chow Jing Kai, eight, who was diagnosed with mild autism when he was two. When he got nervous in the past, he would roll around on the floor, hurl objects or start shouting.

His mother Annie Tan, 45, would hug him tightly, the pressure from her touch calming him down. But the customer service officer could not always be around to do this for her son.

Over a year ago, her son started using T.Jacket. His therapist or teacher in school helps to activate the vest. Jing Kai can also do it himself.

Ms Tan said: "The jacket is like a person holding him. He feels secure and it calms him down very fast. As parents, it is also less stressful for us."

There are two versions of the vest: The basic one costs $549, while the premium version, which offers more customised pressure control, retails for $799. Sponsorship from DBS Bank allows T.Ware to sell it at subsidised prices of $250 or less for local partners.

The vest is now sold in Singapore, Japan, Germany and Belgium. It is also undergoing trials by US government agencies to see if it can help ex-soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Said Dr Teh: "We are proud that as Singaporeans we have been able to do something useful like this. We definitely feel that we came up with something truly revolutionary."

Want your special project to be noticed? ST invites you to join Impact Journalism Day 2016 and stand a chance to be featured in publications around the world. Share your project by Feb 26, 2016 here:

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2015, with the headline 'Special jacket delivers 'virtual' hugs'. Subscribe