Will your smartphone one day help you walk better?

Published: Monday, Dec. 24 2012 11:51 a.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Can a smartphone app correct someone's limp?

That is what one University of Utah professor hopes to do with new technology that uses a special insole outfitted with gyroscopes, accelerometers and force sensors to give real-time feedback to people learning to walk with prosthetic legs or overcoming a hip replacement or injury.

Stacy Bamberg, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, is on sabbatical from the University of Utah to work toward the launch of her Rapid Rehab system. The device functions as an electronic physical therapist strapped to a person's ankle, sending analysis and audio cues to that person's smartphone.

Bamberg said part of the idea for the Rapid Rehab system came from conversations with physical therapists who expressed frustration that patients make strides under a therapist's supervision but struggle to keep up their progress between sessions.

The Rapid Rehab system, she said, would allow individuals with walking abnormalities to practice walking on their own while still receiving instruction. It would also allow therapists to review the data gathered between appointments.

"It would not only give you the feedback while you're doing it, it would store the data historically," Bamberg said.

The system is expected to cost somewhere between $150 and $200, she said. Her personal goal is to bring the cost down closer to $100, and advances in smartphone technology have already allowed Veristride — the startup company she launched to distribute the Rapid Rehab system — to minimize customer costs.

The original prototypes relied on a small computer or netbook, Bamberg said, but the widespread adoption of smartphones provided a way for people to receive their personal walking information without investing in a separate device.

"Smartphones are huge," she said. "Without them, the (customer) costs would have been more like $500."

Because the technology relies on analytical and audio feedback, it requires a device with a screen and either speakers or a headphone jack, Bamberg said. Conveniently, most consumers have that and more.

"You already pay for that hardware with your smartphone," she said. "Everyone carries around this wonderful computer in their pocket all day long."

Veristride has received several grants, including $150,000 from the National Science Foundation and $40,000 from the Utah Governor's Office of Economic Development.

Bamberg said her team is applying for another National Science Foundation grant to support its timeline of launching the product in the next 18 months. The company is also supported by the University of Utah Technology Commercialization Office, which means the university would receive a share of the profits if the business proves successful.

"We're very excited about it," said Thad Kelling, spokesman for the Technology Venture Development office. "We believe this is one of the more promising technologies that's being launched."

The Rapid Rehab system is similar to products by Nike that track the pace and distance of runners, but Bamberg's device would collect more extensive information such as the amount of pressure a person applies to the ground, the foot's position and angle, and the regularity of a person's step.

Kelling said the amount of grant support Veristride has gathered early on is a testament to the marketability of Bamberg's product. He said there's already a clear demand for the technology, as well as potential for more uses in the future.

"This thing can be configured to help people with any number of walking abnormalities," Kelling said. "The sky is the limit for this technology."

He also said the product is exciting because of the involvement of University of Utah graduate students, from scientists who lent their expertise to the project to MBA students who helped draft Veristride's business plan.

"This company and this product is a great example of how students at the U. get involved," Kelling said.

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

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