A European project coordinated by Antoine Widmer, professor and researcher at the HES-SO Valais-Wallis institute of informatics, is using computer data to suggest ways of improving our ageing. In collaboration with the CHUV, the MindMaze company, the Haute Ecole Arc, ProSenectute, BruSano in Brussels and the University Institute of Geriatrics in Montreal, the StayFitLonger project has obtained funding from the European Commission via the AAL (Active and Assisted Living) programme. This programme funds research into information technology-based solutions for more independent living in old age.
The ageing of brain structures is often accompanied by a decrease in physical and intellectual capacities. The objective of StayFitLonger is to prevent or slow down this deterioration. Older people become more fragile, sometimes lose their balance, may suffer from memory loss and have more difficulty concentrating. However, they want to stay in their own homes as long as possible and maintain a good quality of life. The StayFitLonger platform aims to keep people mobile, reduce falls and prevent cognitive decline through training for memory, attention and executive functions. Implemented during COVID, the mobile platform for home training was very useful and used by the people participating in the study. Incorporating physical exercises to prevent falls as well as cognitive training in the form of a game, StayFitLonger also allowed social interaction with a virtual coach on demand.
Antoine Widmer jokingly states that this was the original research question of the project. The research teams wanted to provide scientific proof of what really works to support the cognitive abilities of people as they age. Indeed, according to popular belief and sometimes medical recommendations, exercises such as Sudoku and Crosswords can be effective in maintaining memory and training the brain. Science now proves that these exercises develop specific but insufficient abilities in terms of concentration and memory. The project demonstrated the importance of distributed or divided attention activities, i.e. performing an exercise that requires several tasks at the same time, one physical and one cognitive. The more synchronised tasks are performed, the more the human brain improves its capabilities. A year of development followed by a year and a half of a randomised controlled trial has demonstrated the effectiveness of StayFitLonger.
This is not Antoine Widmer's first project to make a difference in people's daily lives. He has already worked on projects with Orif - Organisation Romande d'Intégration et de Formation - using virtual reality to facilitate learning, and on a project related to autism spectrum disorders. "The interest of interactive technological solutions, such as virtual reality or augmented reality, is not to create more needs for commercial purposes, but to respond to societal needs, to concretely improve people's lives," the researcher confides. His background is interesting in more ways than one, as he obtained his Bachelor's degree in computer science at the HES-SO in Fribourg and continued with a Master's degree and a PhD in Calgary, Canada. He specialised in understanding human perception through virtual reality. The idea was to find out if it was possible to change the perceptions of sight and touch without the human being being being aware of it. To do this, the testers wore a virtual reality headset and sensors on one hand. The researcher modified the visual characteristics of a virtual ball (size, weight, softness) and the force feedback. In this way, he discovered that the sense of sight was predominant in humans, who were quicker to notice changes to the ball through their sense of vision than through their sense of touch. With this specialisation in hand, Antoine Widmer returned to Switzerland and worked on an Innosuisse project with the Zurich-based company VirtaMed. The aim was to improve force feedback in a virtual reality platform for training in endoscopic surgery.
He is now pursuing his career in Sierre, first as a post-doctoral fellow and then as an associate professor in the business information technology. "Born in Fribourg, I became an expatriate in Canada and a bit of an expatriate in Valais. The only thing that connects Calgary and Sierre are the mountains; the Rockies on one side, the Alps on the other", explains Antoine when talking about the reasons that led him to apply in Valais. As the coordinator of this research project, which cost more than 2 million francs and involved prestigious institutions, he is happy to have been able to involve the students of the business informatics course in the development of StayFitLonger. He particularly enjoys teaching and makes sure to integrate his research into his course and future undergraduates into his research projects. It seems to be very motivating for young people to contribute, especially when the projects are socially useful. Antoine Widmer was also keen to involve the users of the application in its improvement by proposing that they add their own content to flesh out the platform.
The IT part of this project focused on data enhancement and coordination of the double-blind clinical study, the students of the course who coded the games and the members of the consortium. The collection, storage and distribution of data was central to the research work in order to rigorously test the project hypotheses. The work on these data allowed us to scientifically demonstrate that the imagined application allowed us to obtain good results on cognition and the prevention of falls. Antoine Widmer admits that he enjoyed coordinating the project, but still enjoys programming. He is happy to teach because it allows him to keep a foot in the door. He feels that it is important to provide concrete input into the projects, to support his assistants in case of delays and, as he teaches programming, to remain constantly up to date in a field that is evolving very rapidly. The application of all this knowledge to the medical field of eHealth is of particular interest to him because his work can have a concrete impact on people's lives and pave the way for personalised medicine. As someone who values his scientific independence, it is not surprising that he has put so much energy into the StayFitLonger project, one of the goals of which is to ensure that elderly people remain independent for as long as possible.