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Making miracles possible

Some of the innovative devices unveiled at iCREATe 2012 have the potential to radically transform the lives of the disabled, patients recovering from drastic surgery or elderly people living alone

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Teams from Thailand won first place in both the design and technology categories of the Student Design Challenge held in Singaporerecently as part of iCREATe 2012, the 6th International Convention on Rehabilitation Engineering & Assistive Technology. 

The team from King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi which developed the ‘‘Smart House’’ assistance technology for senior citizens.

To address potential problems caused by rapidly ageing societies around the world, a team of bright young students from King Mongkut's University of Technology Thonburi (KMUTT), who call themselves Novitat, developed "Smart House" assistance technology for senior citizens.

"We designed the Smart House for old people who live alone or those who are on their own for long periods while their children are at work. There is a self-care capability and systems that ensure safety in case of an emergency. Family members are able to watch over and communicate with their loved one from a distance," explained Novitat's leader, Sikana Tanupabrungsun.

The Smart House may comprise several different components which can work independently of each other.

This not only provides greater flexibility but also allow the system to continue functioning even if one or more components are down. The system that facilitates communication between the user and the outside world (family, friends, medical practitioners) is designed rather like that used for video conferences. Sensors can monitor the householder's heart rate and other vital signs, detect if he/she has had a fall or if there is a risk of fire in the house.

Emergency signals sent out by the sensors are analysed to determine what help is required and, if necessary, the alarm can be raised via telephone calls, short text messages or email.

The system can also be configured to alert the user about upcoming medical appointment and when it is time to take prescribed medication.

Family members or the householder's doctor can access the system remotely and monitor or reset the alarms.

"There are two possible channels to control the Smart House. The first is voice recognition, which allows the user to control the system by issuing short keywords," Sikana explained.

If the user says "Call family", for instance, the video-conference feature will be triggered and the designated person or people will be contacted via computer or smartphone.

The second channel is wireless; the user presses the appropriate button on a remote-control device which sends commands to the system.

Sikana noted that Smart House also enhances senior citizens' mental health as the system allows them to socialise conveniently via several communication modules and this contact can help reduce depression caused by loneliness and raise their self- esteem since they will feel they are less of a burden on their families.

Having such a system in place would also allow elderly people to continue living in their own homes, while the remote-monitoring facility will reduce the need for relatives to commute back and forth, thereby saving them both time and money.

Smart House has been proposed to Bumrungrad International Hospital and a trial of the system has already been run there. Nudpakun Leechaikul, a member of the Novitat team, noted that the system is especially useful for hospitals that need to monitor the condition of at-risk patients who have returned home after an operation.

The main competitive advantage of Smart House, say its inventors, is that it is more cost-effective than other systems.

Its design allows it to utilise existing equipment, so installation and maintenance costs can be minimised. Also, due to its flexibility, the system can be customised to suit each user's needs and other components can be plugged into the system without necessitating modifications to the core design.

The ‘‘CP Stepper’’ helps teach children with cerebral palsy how to walk.

REHABILITATING STROKE VICTIMS

The other high-scorers in the Student Design Challenge was a group from the Biomedical Engineering and ICT faculties at Mahidol University. They came first in the technology category for a project with a rather daunting title: "Electromyogram-triggered Game Animation and Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation Biofeedback for Stroke Rehabilitation".

Most stroke patients have difficulty with motor functions and in controlling their muscles. Providing electrical stimulation is usually an important part of the physical therapy they receive.

Piyarat Suthampitak, a member of the Mahidol team, explained that the system has the potential to motivate post-stroke patients to perform specific therapy tasks and as the experience is enjoyable they are motivated to continue.

A built-in device called an electromyogram (EMG) triggers neuromuscular electrical stimuli that can help such patients improve muscle strength that affects patterns of body movement.

When the system is turned on, written information is supplied on how to proceed. The patient will see a recommendation from their doctor at the top of the screen and two main menus, which are ''Play game'' and ''View report''.

There are six different games to be played, after each of which the patient can view a report to see what progress, if any, they have made on this particular set of exercises.

There are two modes: standalone and wireless communication mode. Using the former, patients can see the EMG reading on an LED bar; they then must try and use their muscle to induce electrical stimuli.

In the second mode, the EMG level and some other necessary data is transmitted wirelessly to the system's computer which then controls the animation games and stores the results for diagnostic purposes and follow-up action by the medical team. A doctor can also monitor the patient's progress and give feedback via a web-based application.

ROBOTIC ARM

Another home-grown design, the ''Portable Assistive Robot Arm for Persons with Disability'', was the first runner-up in the technology category.

Jetsada Arnin, Khunawat Luangrat and Sittichai Iampetch, from the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Mahidol University's Faculty of Engineering, invented a robotic arm suitable for amputees or people who have lost the use of one or both arms.

It comprises a gripping device which can reach for, lift and grasp objects, including utensils for eating. Made from lightweight aluminum metal, the arm is very portable. It has a high torque motor built in which stabilises the arm and allows it to lifts loads of up to 5kg.

This robotic arm allows disabled people to lift and grasp objects.

''Our design uses three mechanical switches to control the artificial arm. It is designed to be flexible and easy to control with three adjustable joints for a greater range of movement: a base joint, middle joint and end effector,'' explained Jetsada, the team's leader.

The user can activate these switches by exerting slight pressure on them with his/her chin, first selecting one of the three joints and then moving this up or down as desired.

Teams from Thailand submitted 11 entries for the Student Design Challenge. Here's a brief rundown on the other projects, all of which were praised as innovative and having the potential for commercial development.

WALK FOR PARAPLEGICS

Teerapong Smutassadong, an engineering student from Thammasat University, designed a machine for use by patients who are paralysed below the waist.

Dubbed the iWalk, it could be a big help for physiotherapists since it enhances the brain's abilities to control the legs while the patient is relearning how to walk. One part of the machine helps the patient lift his/her legs and another part, inspired by workout machines used in the gym, assists with forward motion, climbing stairs, etc.

The device is designed to help the patient's brain rapidly relearn how to control the movement of his/her legs.

FOR CHILDREN WITH CEREBRAL PALSY

Maywaleen Jirojananukun, a former therapist who is currently pursuing a master's degree in mechanical engineering at Thammasat University, was the leader of a team which invented the ''CP Stepper'', a device to teach children with cerebral palsy how to walk.

The machine keeps the head, torso and legs of the CP patient in correct alignment to each other and supports the person in a stable, upright position and then a motor, activated by a remote-control device held by a parent or therapist, assists the patient to make the movements necessary for walking.

''The number of therapists is limited and parents have to pay for physical therapy by the hour, so we created this walker to lighten the burden on the children's parents and reduce their dependence on therapists.''

CENTRAL REMOTE-CONTROL DEVICE

Another team from KMUTT, this time from the School of Architecture and Design, created a remote-control device for electrical appliances and light fixtures in the home. It can be used to activate everything from the TV, lamps and lights throughout the house to fans and air-conditioning units, and should be useful for senior citizens or people who have had a stroke or suffer from paralysis or cerebral palsy.

''The remote-control system was developed earlier by Nectec [the National Electronics and Computer Technology Centre],'' explained project leader Naroot Pitisongswat, ''but our team invented a device based on this that will allow elderly people or those with disabilities to do more things for themselves and thus live more independently.''

SOFTWARE FOR THE BLIND

A team from the Faculty of Engineering at Chulalongkorn University developed software that allows visually impaired people to listen to online content.

Dubbed Chula-FungPloen, the device provides a universal means for them to listen to heterogeneous forms of content available on websites including text, streamed audio, online audio files, RSS feeds, DAISY audiobooks, YouTube video, Facebook, Twitter and email. Once users select a type of online content supplied by the Chula-FungPloen service which organises content both through web searches and by retrieving data from user-authorised sources, the device uses a built-in text-to-speech module to convert the written word to sound. Users can interact directly with the Chula-FungPloen server. It also supports Braille input and other external input devices.

SPEECH TRAINING FOR LARYNGECTOMEES

Teerapoj Teeropas and Wanus Choketaweesak, a second team from the School of Architecture and Design at KMUTT, came up with speech-training software for laryngectomees _ people who have had to have their larynx (voice box) surgically removed and who often have difficulty breathing, swallowing and speaking clearly.

After undergoing surgery to remove their larynx, patients are encouraged to meditate to decrease stress levels and do various exercises to strengthen certain muscles, said Teerapoj, explaining that the software assists patients to create sounds by using their oesophagus. They practise swallowing, retaining and releasing air and train their lips to form word sounds.

RESTORING NEUROLOGICAL FUNCTION

Another team from the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Mahidol's Faculty of Engineering invented the iRAD (Integrated Rehabilitation and Assistive Device via Brain-Computer Interface System), a device that combines both neuro-rehabilitation and assistive technology and should be especially useful to people with cerebral palsy or those who have suffered a stroke.

Yunyong Punsawad, the team leader, said the iRAD was designed to help patients restore or recover neurological function in their arms and legs via the use of signals from the cortex of their brain. Stroke and cerebral palsy patients need to follow a regular exercise routine to rehabilitate the muscles in their arms and legs.

Normally they do this by attending sessions at a physical therapy centre, but patients equipped with an iRAD can exercise by themselves while receiving instructions remotely from their physical therapist or doctor.

With the integrated brain-computer interface technology, iRAD may also be able to help patients restore some neuro-functions. When put in assistive mode, the device can help them grasp a glass of water or perform other everyday tasks.

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