Pizza delivery apps. Fitness trackers. Dashboard GPS. Often, technology makes life easier for people whose lives are already very easy.
But what about next-generation wheelchairs or 3D-printed prosthetics?
In the field of assistive technology, scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs are also making life easier for people with disabilities, chipping away at truly big problems at steady pace. Their successes are likely to accelerate.
“I think we’re in the middle of a revolution in technology for people with impairments,” says David Reinkensmeyer, a biorobotics researcher at the University of California, Irvine.
“This field, from when I started 15 years ago until now, has really seen an attraction of younger people wanting to get involved,” says Alex Mihailidis, a University of Toronto professor who holds a chair in rehabilitation technology.
“People are seeing this as a challenging and exciting application.”
Yet these researchers are often confronted with hurdles that designers of mainstream tech — whether silly or genuinely useful — are not: regulatory barriers, marketplace fragmentation, and even our own unconscious biases.
Growing up in Alberta, Gary Kurek was a high school science-fair phenom, ranking provincially, nationally and internationally. In his senior year, after watching his grandmother struggle with the effects of cancer, he set out to build a better wheelchair.
His novel design piqued the interest of Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel, who chose Kurek for a prestigious $100,000 Thiel Fellowship for entrepreneurs under 20. Among other mobility devices, Kurek built a wheelchair that could climb stairs.
But he eventually dropped the project, in large part due to regulatory struggles.
“We got really bogged down . . . It was going to take a ton of money and a ton of time,” he says. The market for his product wasn’t big enough to justify the investment. Though he would like to come back to mobility products, Kurek is now working on automated manufacturing.
Because many assistive technologies fall under the banner of medical devices, they must be approved by oversight bodies such as Health Canada or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Those in the field acknowledge that safety is paramount, but say the process can sometimes stifle innovation: it is lengthy, costly, and “still quite prohibitive to a lot of startups,” says Mihailidis. “That’s one of the big next hurdles we need to tackle as a field.”
Compounding that problem, the market for assistive technologies is highly fragmented, even though it is large and growing rapidly with the aging populations of most developed countries.
“For sure there’s a big, big need ... but the market is pretty heterogeneous, in the sense that there are a vast numbers of impairments that cause disabilities to arise,” says Melanie Baljko, a York University professor who specializes in assistive technology.
“Everyone experiences their impairment differently.”
Even reaching those consumers is a challenge. Many people who need these products don’t buy them directly: insurance companies, caregivers and clinicians all act as mediators.
At the same time, other technological advances have begun to carve new pathways forward. The advent of 3D printers, Baljko and Mihailidis both note, has fuelled a thriving DIY culture where designs for items like modified light switches and spoons are shared openly online, circumventing the need for a traditional marketplace and allowing for low-cost customization.
“This is really putting the power of technology development into the hands of people who know best,” Baljko says.
Other general advances have spurred assistive tech too: the price of sensors is dropping, and machine-learning algorithms are only getting smarter. Smartphones and tablets have created a platform for the proliferation of interactive games that help people with challenges.
Shifting social attitudes have also helped. “It’s becoming increasingly socially acceptable to have technology on your body — Apple Watch for example,” says Reinkensmeyer. “We’re all just using technology to enhance our abilities.”
But attitude is the most invisible barrier for assistive tech, he adds. “You know what holds us back? The attitude the people can’t: ‘You can’t have a spinal cord injury and play basketball, or ski . . . ’ How long did that societal attitude hold back the development of technologies?” he asks. “We don’t even know what our assumptions are.”
For Kate Allen, writing about assistive technologies hits home
Here is a typical email from my Dad, who has Parkinson’s disease:
“Kate I hope that your gum problem has lessened and then you I know a virtuous Flossie — try this again — and that you are a virtuous Flossie to Flossie newsflash to the Flossie Turley — what I’m trying to say is if you have seen the error of your ways and now floss your teeth regularly — my God!, It said what I wanted to thank you for his time to say goodbye.”
In case you couldn’t tell, he’s trying to urge me to floss better (I’m 30, for the record). But the voice-recognition software he uses — designed to circumvent his shaky hands — clearly had other ideas.
My English-professor father sent the garbled email for hilarity’s sake, as he often does. I forwarded to my brother for laughs and forgot about it. But a few weeks later when I was aflutter over a new app that offers on-demand lunch delivery, I stopped and thought: this is ridiculous. Why are so many people trying to make it easier for me to buy a sandwich, when it was already really, really easy for me to buy a sandwich? How many people are trying to “disrupt” the crappy technology available to my Dad, who actually needs it?
In the course of trying to answer that question, I stumbled across a fascinating new study led by scientists at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute. The research team, led by University of Toronto speech-language pathology professor Yana Yunusova, is testing whether using video games to visualize speech therapy exercises will be more effective at helping Parkinson’s patients improve their characteristically slurred speech. Users repeat tongue-twisters with electromagnetic sensors in their mouths, and the better they do, the more fire a virtual dragon spits out, burning down a stand of trees.
My Dad was game. We showed up the TRI on a Tuesday morning, and the team carefully wired him up. “Super Sue sat sewing,” he said over and over again.
He found the process frustrating — “They have a strange idea of what a game is, I must say,” he wrote me later — but recognized the importance of what the scientists were trying to accomplish, and will return to be a full participant in the trial.
As I discovered, it’s just a lot harder to bring assistive technology to market than it is to build an Uber for sandwiches or an app that only says “Yo.” But it’s not for lack of a community of people who care deeply, and who are working extraordinarily hard.
Four Novel Assistive Technologies
Engineered by researchers in the Bloorview Research Institute at Toronto’s Holland Bloorview rehabilitation hospital and backed by Grand Challenges Canada, AT-Knee’s designers spent years studying how to make it as biomechanically efficient as possible, with a novel locking mechanism that mimics the stability of real knees.
While the trend in prosthetics has been toward high-tech robotics and motorization, LegWorks’ chief technology officer Jan Andrysek notes that the bulk of lower-limb amputees live in countries and communities where such expensive technology is out of reach.
“We came up with very simple concept that provided the function that we need,” said Andrysek. After rounds of clinical testing in Chile, Tanzania, Burma, Canada, and elsewhere, LegWorks is aiming for widespread adoption: “we’re trying to be everywhere.”
A team of University of Toronto engineering undergraduates designed this razor to accommodate the jerky movements of Huntington’s disease patients. It is a finalist in the 2015 Innovative Designs for Accessibility, a competition for Ontario university students. Michelle Samfira, a co-creator, called the team’s work “really rewarding.”
The sensor-filled glove is designed to by worn by stroke patients and played with a game that works a lot like Guitar Hero. The system coaxes stroke survivors to use the kind of hand movements that will help them regain dexterity. It was created by Nizan Friedman, a former graduate student in the lab of University of California, Irvine’s David Reinkensmeyer.
Professor Goldie Nejat, who directs the Autonomous Systems and Biomechatronics Laboratory at U of T’s Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department, designed Brian, a socially assistive robot. Using machine learning, Brian can talk and joke, and is designed to help cognitively impaired seniors accomplish tasks like finishing meals or taking medication on time.