Assistive tech for seniors uses finger-buzzes to prevent falls
As a senior's sense of balance deteriorates, their chances of experiencing a serious fall increase accordingly. Help may be on the way, however, in the form of a system that buzzes the user's fingertip in order to keep them upright.
One of the consequences of an impaired sense of balance is a tendency to sway when standing and walking. It is this "postural swaying" that can lead to an outright fall, which may in turn may result in broken bones and even an irreversible loss of mobility.
Previously, scientists at Japan's Yokohama National University observed that if a swaying person's finger comes into contact with a light, yielding surface such as a hanging curtain or piece of paper, that tactile warning is enough to stop and correct the sway. It doesn't matter that the surface isn't strong enough to physically support the person, as would a cane or a wall.
This effect is known as "light touch," and the researchers set about incorporating it into a wearable system. After initial experiments that involved using 3D motion-capture cameras to detect swaying in test subjects, the scientists moved onto a setup that utilizes a body-mounted accelerometer for the same task.
When that gadget detects that the wearer is starting to sway, it activates a vibrotactile device located on the tip of the person's dominant index finger. That device painlessly buzzes their fingertip, with the intensity and directionality of the vibrations corresponding to the severity and direction of the sway.
When the experimental "virtual light touch" (VLT) system was tested on 150 volunteers ranging in age from their sixties to nineties, it was found to significantly reduce postural sway. The scientists are now working on making the system lighter and smaller, and on improving its effectiveness.
A paper on the research, which is being led by Assoc. Prof. Keisuke Shima, was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.