Robotic cane gives unsteady walkers a virtual friend to lean on

An attentive mechanical walking aid developed at Columbia University can help correct the gait of people who are unsure on their feet due to motor-skills challenges. In the process, the cane-like device may also reduce the risk of falls.

Roboticist Sunil Agrawal, PhD, and colleagues tested their “person-following light-touch device” on 12 healthy subjects wearing VR headsets that simulated walking routes with varying degrees of difficulty.

The volunteers made numerous passes along the trail, first in a plain virtual environment, then in a visually perturbed virtual environment and, lastly, in both virtual environments with the device accompanying the subject.

By design, the device gives a human walker help with proprioception, which is the motor skill of adjusting equilibrium and movements to changes in a physical space.

“The light touch support caused narrower strides in all virtual environment conditions,” indicating improved balance and thus confidence, the authors suggested in their study, published this week in IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters.

In coverage of the work by Columbia’s college of engineering, study co-author Joel Stein, MD, a physical rehabilitation specialist, says the novel approach to helping people who may struggle to navigate their environment has potential applications for a variety of conditions.

Agrawal adds that the team will next test the device on healthy individuals whose balance has been disrupted to simulate vertigo and other vestibular deficits.

Meanwhile a key arm of the ongoing research will focus on aiding the elderly.

“We will need other avenues of support for an aging population,” Agrawal says. “This is one technology that has the potential to fill the gap in care fairly inexpensively.”

The Columbia news item notes that 35% of people aged 75 to 80 have mobility impairments serious enough to compromise their independence and lower their quality of life.

To read the full item and view a video demonstration of the robotic cane in use, click here.