Along with the sense of touch, the sense of balance, although it is not among the five basic ones, can be seriously compromised following to a disease, an accident or an injury. Rehabilitation therapies can last long, and during the therapy, the risk of a fall is always to be taken into consideration.
In order to minimize this risk, researchers from the Center for Advanced Surgical and Interventional Technologies at UCLA are working on what looks like a life vest which, if used by rehab patients, helps them maintain their balance.
It is an inflatable vest, not too different from those we can find on planes. What makes the difference is that it is inflated automatically instead of manually. In fact, on the outside the vest features some accelerometers, similar to those used on most smartphones, and some silicone inflatable balloons.
When the accelerometer detects a sudden movement which signals the danger of a fall, the silicone balloons are inflated in a way that gives the wearer an impulse that warns him against the fall, prompting him to react in the direction opposite to the one in which he is falling. The high pressure inflating of the membrane that contains the balloons works like a push which immediately lifts up the vest wearer.
The core of this system is an actuator, which provides a reaction time of approximately 60 milliseconds to inflate the balloons, enough to provide a real-time impulse. Compared to other systems which send an electrical vibration on their user’s skin, where the skin might get used to the stimulus and react slower with time, usage of balloons does not have this kind of side effects and allows for a constant immediate response, which guarantees a better rehabilitation therapy.