Rice researchers unveil augmented reality app to help with Parkinson's patient safety

Engineering students at Rice University have created a new iPhone app they say could help patients with Parkinson's manage a symptom of the disease called "freezing," a temporary and involuntary inability to move when the legs are unable to follow the brain's command.

Visual, audio or vibratory cues can help overcome that, research has shown, and the Rice developers say their new app offers a comprehensive way to deliver those cues.

Specifically, it incorporates augmented reality technology. A user simply points the phone at the ground and the app can cast the image of a block or circle where the person's foot should land in order to keep walking.

That simple cue can be enough to allow patients resume their natural gait.

The developers say the app can also provide audio or sensory signals through the iPhone's existing capability. (It's not available for Android devices yet, but should be adaptable to that platform, they said.)

"This is for patients who, in their day-to-day lives, experience freezing episodes," said Rice student Gaby Perez. "There are a couple of devices on the market to help them, but none of them incorporate all three kinds of cues."

Currently, many Parkinson's patients use a cane with a laser attachment to help them with gait freezing. This is more affordable and easy to use, they said.

"Every time you place the cane down, the laser line pops up in front of you, cueing the user to step over it," said co-developer Theresa Sonka. "But a lot of the time, these laser solutions have trouble working outdoors."

"What's cool about our project is that the cheapest solutions available right now are about $200, with some solutions costing as much as $3,000," added fellow team member Jeremy David. "Our solution, however, has the potential to work more effectively and at a fraction of the cost."

Twitter: @MikeMiliardHITN
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