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Brotherly love: VCU Brandcenter alumnus gives brother the gift of words

VCU Brandcenter alumnus gives brother the gift of words

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Ever since he was a kid, Matt Reamer has been awed by the special connection between his mom and his older brother Dustin. They have a way of communicating that is distinctly their own.

“She understands him in ways that even my dad and I don’t comprehend,” said Matt, who at 27 is three years younger than Dustin. “This unique language that they have developed is 30 years in the making, and still evolving.”

With everyone else though, Dustin, who has autism and is nonverbal, has struggled to communicate. So when Matt graduated from the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter in 2014 and was preparing to move across the country, he wanted to leave his family with something to make their lives easier.

A childhood photo of brothers Dustin and Matt Reamer.
A childhood photo of brothers Dustin and Matt Reamer.

He leveraged what he had learned at the Brandcenter — especially in his third-semester Physical Computing class — to come up with a device that would allow Dustin to communicate via long distance. Most augmentative and alternative communication devices on the market only allow communication between the caregiver and individual when they are within a few feet of each other.

“Essentially they are soundboards,” Matt said. “I took a look at a super-powerful, efficient and inexpensive technology that we all take for granted — text messaging. Texts allow for longer distance communication and, for our family, for basic everyday needs that Dustin struggled to communicate in the past. This device provides more freedom for both my mom and for Dustin, reducing the physical strain of walking from room to room whenever he needs something. Now, my mom and the rest of the family can easily make sense of what Dustin needs.”

The Dustin’s Words device is about the size of a box of sandwich bags and displays six buttons on its top, each one communicating a different want or need. When the user pushes a button, the device sends a text message to the caregiver’s phone, allowing the caregiver to be in another part of the house or even across town.

While developing it, Matt tested the device with Dustin and their mother. He asked his mom questions about Dustin’s everyday life and customized the device to fit his routine. Every decision Matt made was centered around Dustin’s needs, likes and wants. For example, Dustin can now press a button to tell his mother he has a headache, to let her know he’s hungry or even to simply send a message that says, “I love you.”

A 3D rendering of the latest version of the Dustin's Words device, which Matt Reamer and his team hope to produce and give away for free upon successful completion of their crowdfunding campaign.
A 3D rendering of the latest version of the Dustin's Words device, which Matt Reamer and his team hope to produce and give away for free upon successful completion of their crowdfunding campaign.

After moving to Los Angeles, where he is an experience designer with ad agency Team One, Matt thought he was done with the project. His co-workers, however, saw potential in the device and enthusiastically encouraged him to continue with it. They thought it was possible that something designed out of love for a sibling could help many others in similar situations.  

Matt has since started a nonprofit (his brother is listed as co-founder) to create and give free devices to those in need, further his research and continue testing new functionality and interaction patterns. Matt and his team of designers and technologists recently launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds to build 100 devices.

Their goal is to create an affordable, customizable product that will give a voice to people who don’t speak for any number of reasons, whether it’s because they are autistic (a large percentage of people with autism are nonverbal) or have suffered a stroke or traumatic brain injury. If the crowdfunding campaign is successful, they plan to give the first 100 devices away for free to families in need. (To make a contribution, visit indiegogo.com/projects/dustin-s-words--4.)

Each device will be customized, right down to the name displayed on the side — instead of Dustin’s Words, for example, it can be called Emily’s Words. Each button and text message can be tailored to the individual depending on his or her needs, and at any time caregivers will be able access a central website where they can download printable icons to swap out with those currently on the buttons and change their corresponding text messages from the same website.

“With devices like this being so complex and expensive, we want to create a more modern and simplified version to meet the needs of a vast array of the Autism spectrum,” Matt said. “If you have donated or plan to donate to the cause through Indiegogo, you’re amazing. We will not let you down and hope to send you as many updates as possible of children using the device you helped give to them. And lastly, if anyone has any suggestions, knows someone who could benefit from the device or would like to help in anyway, please feel free to reach out.”

 

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In this video, Matt Reamer explains how the Dustin's Words device works and how the idea for it came about.
A sketch of the latest version of the Dustin's Words device.
A sketch of the latest version of the Dustin's Words device.
Dustin Reamer
Dustin Reamer
Photos of Dustin Reamer provide inspiration in the Dustin's Words workspace.
Photos of Dustin Reamer provide inspiration in the Dustin's Words workspace.
A wall in the workspace is covered with concepts, diagrams and notes.
A wall in the workspace is covered with concepts, diagrams and notes.