Researchers in the U.K. have developed a “magic carpet,” but not of the mythical flying variety. The new device consists of a carpet underlay embedded with plastic optical fibers and electronic sensors that can detect and map a person's walking patterns. With all of us progressing inexorably towards the age when the consequences of a fall can become much more serious than an embarrassing inconvenience, the researchers say the smart carpet is aimed at cutting the roughly 50 percent of hospital admissions in the over 65 age group in the U.K. that are the result of falls.

The carpet uses a novel tomographic technique similar to hospital scanners with light propagated under the surface of the carpet used to map 2D images. When a person walks on the carpet, the bending of the embedded optical fibers is detected by tiny electronics at the edges of the carpet, which relay signals to a computer. In this way, the carpet can map the walking patterns of the person in real-time. The researchers say the imaging technology could also be developed to detect chemical spillages or fire.

As well as being able to detect a sudden incident, such as a trip or fall, the carpet can also show a steady deterioration in a person’s walking patterns, something that might not be noticeable to a carer or family member. This capability gives the carpet the potential to predict the increased chances of the person suffering a fall before it happens.

“The carpet can be retrofitted at low cost, to allow living space to adapt as the occupiers’ needs evolve – particularly relevant with an aging population and for those with long term disabilities – and incorporated non-intrusively into any living space or furniture surface such as a mattress or wall that a patient interacts with,” says Dr Patricia Scully from The University of Manchester’s Photon Science Institute who led the research team.

In addition to aged care homes and hospital wards, the researchers say the smart carpet technology could be fitted in people’s homes if necessary, while physiotherapists could also make use of the technology to map changes and improvements in a person’s gait.

“The carpet can gather a wide range of information about a person’s condition; from biomechanical to chemical sensing of body fluids, enabling holistic sensing to provide an environment that detects and responds to changes in patient condition,” added Dr Scully.

The team is presenting their research at the Photon 12 optics conference being held at the U.K.’s Durham University from September 3-6.