Researchers testing smart walker for gait analysis, social support, activity coaching

By Jonah Comstock

A team of European researchers, supported by the European Commission and Siemens, is developing a smart walker that will bring sensor and tablet technology to bear helping improve mobility in older adults. The "FriWalk" (short for Friendly Robot Walker) includes cameras and sensors for detailed gait analysis, a heart rate sensor, and a tablet interface that can provide activity coaching and connect users together in what researchers call a "CyberPhysical Social Network".

 “Our goal is to have one version of the walker for hospitals and a less expensive version that costs less than €2,000 [$2,231] for families,” project manager Luigi Palopoli, who works at the University of Trento in Italy, told Siemens

Researchers are currently testing the device with 100 seniors in Spain, Italy, and England, with the goal of concluding the testing by 2018. The European Commission has chipped in $4.8 million (4.3 million euros) toward the project.

Analyzing a person's gait can be a predictor for a number of age-related health complications, including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, or just reduced mobility. But the current methods of testing gait, timed tests in office or laboratory settings, are often inconvenient and sometimes inaccurate. Part of the function of FriWalk would be to get a better idea of participants' gait, using depth sensors and cameras in the walker and pressure sensors embedded in special shoe insets given to the user. 

In order to entice seniors to use the device, though, the walker also comes with a built-in tablet. The tablet is the "friendly robot" aspect of the technology: It will ask users about their habits and preferences and recommend different physical activities to them. Heart rate sensors and emotion recognition technology will help the tablet respond to the user's physical and emotional state and make recommendations accordingly.

Finally, the tablet technology will aim to connect FriWalk users with similar interests to one another, and tell them when group activities are taking place. This functionality will only be realized if the team manages to deploy the devices in large numbers.

A few years ago American researchers at UCLA partnered with a startup called IsoWalk to create a smart cane which had the goal of analyzing gait and ultimately preventing falls. That project is apparently still under development.