Carnegie Mellon University

Hug Machine

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Award-Winning Device Helps Autistic

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Biomedical engineering students from Carnegie Mellon recently won first place in a national student design competition for their undergraduate work on an affordable version of the "Hug Machine," which calms people with autism.

Team leader Jenna L. Colbaugh, who now works for the Procter & Gamble Company, said the Hug Machine safely applies soothing, user-controlled body pressure to help people with autism cope with anxiety and other stress-related conditions. The team's goal was to turn the costly, commercially available device into an affordable system that could be easily built by parents, schools and clinics.

"We combined a twin bed air mattress with a built-in remote control fan inflator and an adjustable and collapsible plywood frame to support it," said Colbaugh. "The user can make the sides move gently in a lateral direction, creating a safe hugging motion for the patient inside the sandwich-shaped prototype."

Colbaugh's team included Biomedical Engineering Department seniors Daron Colflesh, Sabrina Dhanani, Stephen Lin and Neil Stegall, under the supervision of biomedical engineering professors James Antaki and Mark B. Friedman. Colbaugh said they worked nonstop over spring break and right up to graduation to make the prototype perfect, even testing it on peers and friends across campus.

Contest entries were judged on how potentially valuable the technology might be for cognitively impaired users and how many of them might benefit from the technology.

"This award is really a testament to the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit of our students and the promise of this creative biomedical engineering design class," said Antaki, who is now developing a revolutionary new infant heart-assist pump.

The competition was sponsored by the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center for the Advancement of Cognitive Technologies (RERC-ACT) and the Colorado-based Coleman Institute.

Related Links: Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition  |  College of Engineering