Assisted living technology: electronics providing a helping hand for young and old
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Technology is a major factor in allowing the elderly and those with disabilities to live independently. At CES this year, new products were introduced that are pushing the boundaries of assisted living.
At this year’s CES in Las Vegas, there were many examples of technology pushing the boundaries of what sensors, apps, software and robotics can achieve to contribute to not only independent living for the elderly, but also to rehabilitation for patients and support for children with special needs. Helping elderly people and those with disabilities to live independently enables them to be in their own homes.
Products that aid mobility and independence for the elderly or those with disabilities make up the accessible technology market. Products include those that enable connectivity within the home, for example, or that enhance learning, communication and mobility. This market is projected to be worth $24bn by 2020, according to a study by BCC Research.
Assistive technology is defined as products that help a person with a disability perform tasks. It can include speech recognition, or voice synthesis, vision aids and ways to assist mobility. The US market for assistive technology is projected to be worth $58.3bn by 2020, according to BCC Research, increasing from $43.1bn in 2015.
In the quest to aid mobility and to help elderly people to live independently, electronics design plays an evolutionary role. One of the easiest ways to enhance communication is to improve hearing so that people can interact effectively. In quiet locations, a hearing aid amplifies sound, but in noisy environments, it can be difficult to filter out the background noise and focus on a particular conversation. Oticon uses its BrainHearing technology and its proprietary Velox chip in its Oticon Opn hearing aid, which has two internal wireless communication systems.
Instead of the conventional two beams, this hearing aid has multiple beams to give 360° sound. The Velox chip processes sound quickly, handling over 1.2 billion operations per second and scanning the environment over 100 times per second for each beam to remove distractions and attenuate noise between words.
“Tests have shown that wearers are 30 per cent better at filtering noise and understanding speech,” says David Lisko, national sales trainer at Oticon. Puppilometry tests, which measure the pupil to monitor understanding, show that wearers remember 20 per cent more information, with 20 per cent less listening effort, compared to wearers using the company’s earlier design. It is also claimed to be the first to connect to the internet to communicate directly with doorbells, smoke detectors and other smart devices via the Oticon ON app. The hearing aid can be programmed to send an alert for a low battery, for example, and the app also has a ‘find my hearing aid’ feature.
For patients with Parkinson’s or those recovering from a stroke, rehabilitation focuses on repetitive motor skills. However, it is this repetitive nature that can decrease patient motivation, so Neofect has developed the Rapael Smart Glove, an elastomer glove that fits over the hand. The glove is linked to a display in the rehabilitation clinic or home and as the wearer performs tasks – such as flexing or extending the wrist or forearm, turning the wrist or extending or flexing fingers – a performance graph shows progress. There are exercises, such as turning over pages, and games, such as weightlifting or card games, with different levels of difficulty to mark progress.
For upper limb rehabilitation, there is the Rapael Smart Board. This training device also provides real-time bio-feedback for cerebrovascular, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis and musculoskeletal disorder patients. The patient’s arm rests on a support which can move left and right, following the motion on the screen. Kinetic evaluation of the range, speed, smoothness and co-ordination of the motions can strengthen shoulder, elbow and scapular movements.
The company has also developed the Exo Glove Poly, a soft, wearable rehabilitation device for Spinal Co-ordinate Injury (SCI) patients. Like the Smart Glove, it fits over the hand and fingertips and uses a tendon routing system to allow the wearer to grip objects. It uses a dual stacking actuator which allows the components, electronics, motor and battery to be placed some distance away from the glove on a wheelchair. The actuator reduces weight by pushing and pulling wires at the same time. The flexion and extension wires are encased in Teflon tubes to protect them during operation. The polymer material means that the glove is waterproof and lightweight. The user can pick up cylindrical and rectangular items and grasp circular objects, like door knobs, to increase independent access around the home.
One of the biggest obstacles to healthcare is cost, particularly the cost of prosthetic limbs. BrainRobotics announced its vision of low-cost robotic prosthetics with the launch of its prosthetic hand. It uses algorithms to interpret the muscle signal to a robotic hand.
“There is still a lot of strength in the muscle up to a year after amputation,” says Fangzhou Xia, mechanical engineer, at BrainRobotics. The muscle signals can control the strength of the movement, so that the grip can be as firm or as light as required, for example to lift and pour from a plastic cup to individual finger control for using a computer mouse. The wearer has to undergo a series of tests so that the robotic hand can understand the muscle signals and convert them to movements, but once the series of two-minute tests are completed, the company reckons that accuracy is 90 per cent. Aluminium is used for the hand, which allows the fine finger joints to be created, although the company hopes to introduce injection-moulding when volume allows.
“It costs around $70,000 to create a prosthetic hand, without machine learning,” says Xia, “We aim to bring this down to below $10,000 – ideally between $3,000 and $5,000, with the assembly and mechanical structure we are using,” he adds.
Working on the principle that prevention is better than cure, RightEye demonstrated its eye tracking technology. President Barbara Barclay explains that any brain injury can cause eye problems, adding that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Parkinson’s disease and autism are all accompanied by vision problems.
RightEye’s software can measure the behaviour of the eye and record movement as well as train the eye with therapy games to encourage peripheral awareness and rapid eye movement between fixed points (saccade), speed and accuracy. Its GeoPref Autism software measures preferential viewing behaviour in children aged from 12 to 40 months. It will launch its Parkinson’s and Movement Disorders 2D software, which measures saccade and smooth pursuit performance to identify 18 movement disorders, in Q2.
Robots will play an increasingly significant part in healthcare and the AvatarMind iPal robot can meet the needs of both the young and the old. For the elderly, the 1.06m-high robot can be a source of companionship and help them to keep track of activities, such as taking medication. It also gives alerts for medical emergencies and provides a means of communication via video calls.
For children, it can help those with autism learn social skills using partner Movia’s specialised software. Madeline Dura, a strategic adviser with AvatarMind, explains that many children with special needs respond more readily to robots than they do to humans. The robot can allow therapists to increase a caseload, as it can monitor a child and identify areas that it may need to concentrate on, such as eye contact. This means that therapy can be tailored to a child’s needs.
The robot also helps parents, as the repetitive instructions required to communicate with an autistic child can be handled easily, and with the same tone and inflection, by the iPal robot. The interactive, Android-based apps can be accessed via the chest panel. The robot can also be used to interact with Movia’s autism software with apps to remind the child to smile, maintain eye contact and other social interaction techniques.
The US-Chinese company announced that software development kit for extensions, such as motors and sensors for the robot, will be available in the first half of this year. It will ship first to China and to the US by the end of 2017.