Walking aid for seniors tracks health, gets social

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The FriWalk measures users' health, detects obstacles ahead, and connects elderly people together(Credit: Siemens)

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The main purpose of a mobility walker is to help its elderly owner get around more easily, but the FriWalk (Friendly Robot Walker) adds health monitoring, navigational aids and social alerts to the mix as well. It's a high-tech walker for the 21st century and is currently being trialed in Spain, Italy and England.

A lot of the technology built into the FriWalk will be familiar from smartphones and wearables. It uses cameras and special pressure-sensitive insoles (worn inside your shoes) to measure the mood, gait and stability of users, enabling doctors and health workers to both monitor recovery from injury and watch out for potential health issues in the future.

It can act as a personal trainer too, just like the Apple Watch or a Fitbit device, suggesting activities and goals for a person to try and meet. The FriWalk could suggest a walk to the shops, for example, then employ its onboard tech to measure how beneficial and how enjoyable it was for the elderly user.

The walker is fitted with an array of sensors and cameras on the front,too, almost like a pedestrianized version of a self-driving car. It can warn about obstacles and dangers ahead, which can prove invaluable for those unsteady on their feet or with less-than-perfect vision, ailments that can often discourage someone from getting outdoors on their own.

Another helpful feature is the integrated "cyberphysical" social network that targets a familiar problem for the elderly: loneliness. By connecting to a network of similar users, the walker can send out notifications about nearby events and activities that are taking place, again encouraging users to get out of the house.

Siemens is one of the partners involved in the development of the FriWalk, and the company's Josef Birchbauer says the four-wheeled walker together with the custom-made pressure-sensitive insoles can process 15 to 20 frames-per-second on a "virtual walkway." It's less expensive than existing walkways used to measure gait and various medical conditions, and is reported to provide higher data quality.

Around 100 elderly people will test the FriWalk until the trial project closes in 2018, at which point the aim is to produce models for hospitals and families. The walker is being developed as part of the EU's ACANTO (A CyberphysicAl social NeTwOrk) project, recently awarded €4.3 million (US$4.8 million) in funding by the European Commission.

The ACANTO team cites the example of 73 year-old Katerina as a case study of someone who could benefit from a FriWalk. Doctors say her rehabilitation from a recent fall would be easier if she walked at least 20 minutes a day, but she lacks motivation to exercise and doesn't have a wide network of friends. Both of these problems could be solved with the FriWalk, which would suggest activities that combine exercise and a social aspect, such as going out to buy milk for a neighbor.

Sources: Siemens, ACANTO

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