Rob Laffan tells David Jackson how Tippy Talk has changed the way his daughter Sadie communicates and, additionally, earned him the title of Ireland’s Innovative Student of the Year


Rob Laffan, a student at Limerick Institute of Technology, was the winner of this year’s Engineers Ireland Innovative Student Engineer of the Year Award which was sponsored by Siemens. An automation and control engineering student, he was shortlisted for his project Tippy Talk, which uses automation technology for communicating across a multitude of non-verbal disabilities such as autism. Laffan developed his project as a result of first-hand experience with his autistic daughter Sadie.

The device allows the user to select a ‘want’, ‘need’ and ‘feeling’ preloaded onto the touch screen. The user’s chosen desire is then sent in the form of a text message directly to the carer’s mobile phone.

Back to college

In 2010 Laffan found himself without a job. After working for a decade as a van driver with a pharmaceuticals company he was unemployed and struggling to find work. He spent 18 months without work and when forced to explore alternative options he began to see a return to education as a viable route back to employment.

In order to find a job, Laffan realised that upskilling was imperative; after some initial research, engineering emerged as the preferred option. Reluctant to relocate his young family, he researched all of the courses that University of Limerick (UL) and Limerick Institute of Technology (LIT) had to offer.

“I researched the sectors which had the biggest demand and everything pointed towards engineering. I didn’t want to leave Limerick due to my family, so it was either UL or LIT.

“I checked out all the relevant courses in UL and LIT, and the one that stood out was Automation and Control Engineering at LIT. It was churning out graduates who were going straight into jobs – the employment rate for graduates seemed to be 100 per cent.”

Once Laffan realised that the automation and control engineering course offered a real chance of employment he signed up straight away with the support of a mature grant and a Back to Education Allowance.

The student life

By his own admission Laffan found the transition back into education difficult. Having completed his Leaving Certificate in 1995, and after more than 15 years out of formal education, he landed back in a classroom surrounded by recent school leavers.

“Going back as a mature student you are going back into an environment, where you are 20 odd years older than most of your fellow students. That in itself was challenging, trying to get into their mindset and trying to get in with the group.

“First year was very hard for me. I found it tough but in saying that it was the best foundation I could have got because things really picked up in second year.”

Although he found it hard Laffan felt the experience of his initial year back stood to him as the course progressed, preparing him well for the challenges to come.

“I noticed it with the lads that came directly into second year, those who would have been qualified electricians skipped first year due to their electrical background. They found it very hard going in second year, even with that past experience.

“Going back in first year was the best thing I could have done. It was a good foundation, it prepared me and I was able to hit the ground running in second year. All the fears were gone, all of the pressure was off.

“I knew my surroundings. I knew what was expected of me and I had much more knowledge about what was expected of me towards the end of the degree as well.”

The project – Tippy Talk

In his second year, Laffan developed the idea for what would eventually become the Tippy Talk prototype – which would form the basis of his final-year project.

“I decided when I started second year that I was going to do something related to autism using automation technology.

“It was towards the end of second year when we began to work with HMI screens and SCADA systems that I thought to myself ‘there is something here I can do’. It was during the summer break of second year that the idea came about. The idea came from Sadie originally.”

At that point, his daughter was sleeping for a maximum of two to three hours per night. During one late night spent looking after her, Laffan made a crucial connection between Sadie and the work he was doing in college.

“I was standing at the back door of my house and my phone beeped, Sadie picked up the phone and handed it to me, I snooped down and asked her was she trying to send me a text message.

“The lightbulb in my head went on straight away. At the time we were learning about how engineers can be notified through SMS message within a SCADA system and we were also learning how to create different SCADA designs on the screens.”

Sadie had a whole library of laminated pictures which she used to communicate her needs and feelings to her family. Laffan made the connection between the way Sadie communicated through the images and the SCADA systems and text messages. He began to question why he couldn’t upload Sadie’s pictures to a SCADA screen and link them to a text message that could be sent directly to his phone.

In time, he put together a list of texts that could be sent from Sadie to his phone (e.g. ‘Daddy I’m hungry, I want an apple’) and he added the pictures that were relevant to the texts to the screen.

“I uploaded a picture of me, a picture of food and a picture of an apple to the screen. I sat down with Sadie and put the HMI screen in front of her and she just tapped each picture individually and the message was sent straight to my phone.”

Once Laffan had observed that Sadie was comfortable using the system he set about building on the initial idea. As Sadie’s father, Laffan was at an advantage in that he could confidently identify her wants and needs. Consequently, he was able to incorporate all of her pictures onto the screen in a sequence that activated different text messages according to what she wanted.

Laffan acknowledged that there were apps on the market that were doing something similar to what he was trying to develop. The stumbling block for most of these apps was that they were limited to ‘same room’ communication. The innovative aspect of Tippy Talk was that it allowed Laffan and Sadie to communicate even if he was not at home, even if he was out of the country.

“Tippy Talk enabled Sadie to communicate with me even if I wasn’t in the house, even if I was in a different country. When I am in college or when I am away I get texts from her telling me how she is feeling.”

Another plus for Laffan was that his own system allowed for some of the behavioural issues that had led to multiple iPad purchases and repairs.

“I tried to use some of the other apps with Sadie but because of her behavioural issues she breaks iPads, she breaks them really easily, even if they are in those really hard cases.

“We have gone through two iPads in the last two years and six or seven screen changes but it has been very costly for us. I thought to myself that there has to be something better.

“Why not just make a unit that we can leave in the house and she can send out messages whether we are in the house or whether we are out of the house? That was the whole concept, the idea behind it.

“It’s a HMI screen and it is designed for industry, those boys can take a serious knocking!”

Behavioural improvement

Through Sadie’s engagement with Tippy Talk, Laffan has noticed a marked improvement in her behaviour.

“Her behaviour has changed a lot. She is a typical child, she has her moments and she does have her autism-related moments, too, but it has seriously improved. Her frustration, because of her inability to communicate verbally, has dropped significantly.”

In six months, Laffan has seen Sadie, through Tippy Talk, develop her ability to express her needs and wants. This improvement has cut down considerably on the time she spends distressed and has increased the quality time available for her to spend with her parents.

“I can’t believe it, to be honest. I still think, ‘did I do that? Did I do that for her’? Sometimes it doesn’t register at all, other times I am very emotional about it.

“I might get a text to say she wants a hug or that she feels happy or scared. When I get those little ones I get really emotional. The majority of messages are requests, a simple request for food items, drink items, toy items – but you get the real nice ones every now and again.

“We got one recently where she wanted to go to the seaside, so we jumped in the car and we went down to Doonbeg, Co Clare, and spent the day at the beach. It’s really improving her life and what I’m hoping to do now is to push it out there and give other people the same joy that I’m after getting out of it.”

Future plans for development

NO FEE 4 Engineers Ireland Innovative Student Engineer of the Year AwardsSo what does the future hold for Tippy Talk? Laffan is currently completing the Enterprise Ireland New Frontiers programme and has a patent application filed for the product since March of this year.

“I am back in LIT looking to develop the business side of Tippy Talk. Hopefully, by the end of this year I’ll be fully investor ready, we are going to try to source investors to push this on and bring it to market.

“That’s exactly where I am right now. I’m doing a lot of business stuff but I just want to engineer it, I want to build it and develop it.

“They’re pushing me well outside my comfort zone here. I am trying to study business models and routes to market, stuff that I never really considered before, but I am getting there, slowly but surely.” O'RiordanTecheducation,Engineers Ireland,innovation,software
Rob Laffan, a student at Limerick Institute of Technology, was the winner of this year’s Engineers Ireland Innovative Student Engineer of the Year Award which was sponsored by Siemens. An automation and control engineering student, he was shortlisted for his project Tippy Talk, which uses automation technology for communicating across...