Cafeteria style

Wright State marketing students put robotic dining device under the microscope

When she was a freshman at Wright State, Jenny Border would often skip meals in the cafeteria because it was socially awkward for her. Her disability required that someone feed her or that she eat her food directly with her mouth.

On April 11, she returned to her alma mater to demonstrate Obi, a robotic dining device that promises to revolutionize how people with disabilities eat their meals.

Observing the demonstration at The Hangar were several students from the Marketing Challenges course offered by the Raj Soin College of Business. They were there to evaluate how well Obi works in a college dining hall and what marketing recommendations to make.

“Our goal is to document the whole process of Jenny getting food and using Obi and seeing how Obi simplifies the dining experience for people who can’t feed themselves,” said marketing student Sarah Tritle. “One of the goals is to convince Wright State to adopt Obi full time so that any student who can’t feed themselves can have the independence that Obi provides.”

The student team also includes Mariah Watkins, Aaron Pitts, Tanner Carte and Brian Holzapfel.

Jenny Border demonstrates Obi, a robotic dining device, at The Hangar cafeteria. (Video by Kris Sproles/Photo by Will Jones)

The Marketing Challenges course was introduced at Raj Soin a year ago to get students to work on applied-type projects, sometimes with established companies on products that are new and innovative.

This year, the first of three, five-week segments involved helping the Wright-Patt Credit Union better reach the student population and be able to grow with them after they graduate. The second involved Speedway, which wanted recommendations on marketing promotions that would increase business. The third focused on Obi.

“Our students are looking at this interaction with WSU Hospitality Services to better understand what the dining assistant needs to do in this process, how well Obi integrates with WSU’s dining facilities and personnel, make some suggestions on potential process improvements and look at the costs and benefits of using Obi,” said Kendall Goodrich, professor and chair of marketing.

Tritle said a good marketing strategy would be to show how Obi has a positive effect on students with disabilities, can reduce the use and cost of dining assistants and make the whole process more efficient.

Border has used Obi to eat numerous times. She said the device has transformed the dining experience for her, enabling her to better engage socially with her dining companions and attend important professional networking events that involve meals.

Border has two degrees from Wright State — a bachelor’s in psychology and in 2011 a master’s in human factors and industrial organizational psychology with a focus on assistive technology for people with disabilities.

She said Obi could be a great dining feature for Wright State students with disabilities.

“Students with disabilities, we want to feel connected and be a part of it,” she said. “This isn’t for just me. This is for the rest of the community.”

Obi was invented by Jon Dekar, president and co-founder of Dayton-based DESiN, LLC, which has four employees. Border is a close friend and brand ambassador for the Obi team.

Dekar said Obi enables the diner to have a more empowering and independent experience by giving them control over selecting food and spooning it to their mouths. The robot can be programmed for 6,000 different feeding positions within one millimeter of accuracy. Border controlled Obi by pressing buttons, but a switch is available for people who can’t use their hands. Wherever someone has mobility on their body, a switch exists that accommodates that area of motion and works with Obi — even if you can only blink your eyes.

During the demonstration at The Hangar, Obi tilted, spun and wheeled, expertly spooning up bacon, eggs and pasta without dropping a single scrap of food.

Dekar said people with disabilities are often dissuaded from eating in restaurants because of the attention their disability draws. With Obi, he said, the attention quickly switches to the device.

He said first-time users have shed tears of joy because of the intense emotional experience. Obi enabled one user to sit on her couch and enjoy eating popcorn with a movie for the first time ever. A 14-year-old boy who began using Obi quipped to his emotional father: “Finally I can skip my vegetables.”

Dekar came up with the concept of Obi after watching his grandmother spoon-feed in front of friends and family his grandfather, who suffered from a degenerative neuromuscular disease.

“I became appalled that in the 21st century, there wasn’t a technology or significant product in the market that addresses this basic human need. Eating is arguably the most basic human need,” he said. “I just became ferociously driven and obsessed with doing something about that.”

Up to 40,000 hours of engineering work went into the making of Obi, from the electronics to the computer software. Its battery provides four to six hours of continuous use before needing to be recharged. The product is also safe, having achieved FDA compliance, CE compliance and approval from Underwriters Labs.

The company began distributing the devices in July, and about 100 are in use. The devices retail for $6,000 apiece, but can be rented or leased. They can be used in homes, hospitals, nursing homes and schools.

Dekar said Wright State “harmonizes” with his company’s brand.

“Wright State is a leader in this life-beyond-limitations mindset,” he said. “We are just thrilled with what Wright State does to create accessibility and fulfilling a lifestyle for all of its students.”

The company intends to review and analyze the feedback from the Wright State marketing students.

“The more data you have, the more creative you can become,” said Dekar. “We absolutely love to listen to other people.”

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