HOUSTON – Engineering students at Rice University have designed a mobile app to help patients with Parkinson’s disease.
The app can help patients overcome a symptom known as “freezing,” in which the legs temporarily refuse to follow the brain’s command to lift and move forward.
For many patients, researchers have found that visual, audio or vibratory cues can help them overcome freezing. The app incorporates augmented reality technology, allowing the user to point the phone at the floor or sidewalk and trigger it to place the image of a block, circle or other object where his or her foot should land. That visual cue is often enough to allow patients to initiate their gait.
The Stairway to Stability app can also provide audio or sensory cues through the phone’s sound and vibration capabilities.
“This is for patients who, in their day-to-day lives, experience freezing episodes,” said Gaby Perez, one of the student engineers, in a statement. “There are a couple of devices on the market to help them, but none of them incorporate all three kinds of cues.”
The students said the app has the potential to work more effectively at a significantly lower cost than current solutions for patients, like a cane with a laser attachment.
Because some patients may also experience tremors in their hands, the team created a lanyard phone case that a patient can wear to make the phone easier to manipulate.
The team worked with the Houston Area Parkinson Society to recruit patients who are helping them test the app at Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen.
“Our goal right now is to prove that the concept of augmented reality can be used in a therapeutic context, while maintaining the user-friendly nature of smartphones,” said Dan Burke, another engineering student, in a statement.