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Vibrating Shoes Could Aid Balance.

A biomedical engineer is hoping people will one day walk a mile in his shoes.

Jim Collins, a professor at Boston University and a faculty member of the Wyss Institute, doesn't feel misunderstood. He wants to help people with problems balancing and walking because they can't feel what's under their feet. To that end, he invented a pair of vibrating shoes.

Though it sounds like a late-night infomercial product - as Collins freely admits - the shoes don't vibrate in a way that can be felt. But they do condition the sensory nerves in the feet that tell the brain whether the wearer is off-balance or not.

"The shoe isn't really sensing anything," Collins said. "It is re-biasing the sensory inputs of the feet."

Many older people suffer from balance problems, and diabetics can sometimes lose sensation in their feet. But it is those sensations which are critical in maintaining balance.

Using the shoes to augment the sense of touch, rather than trying to make the shoes "smart" was a much simpler way to attack the problem.

"It's a big challenge to say I want to sense what's on the bottom of the foot, then transmit that information from the foot to the person to act on it," he said. "But if you could re-bias old Mrs. McGillicuddy as she walks around Manhattan, that could make a real difference."

Collins says he came up with the idea from a mathematical concept called stochastic resonance. Stochastic resonance is what happens when a small amount of noise is added to an otherwise smooth signal - the effect can sometimes make some signals easier to detect.

It was at a conference where another scientist, Frank Moss, was discussing how crayfish detect predators that the idea came together. Crayfish can detect tiny changes in the water pressure around them, and do so better in a slightly "noisy" environment.

"He said is you could adapt stochastic resonance into a medical device the National Institutes of Health will send you dump trucks full of money," Collins said. "I'd never have to write a grant application again."

In thinking about it, Collins realized that human touch sense can pick up tiny signals and do so better when there is a small amount of noise. It is a bit like squinting for near sighted people: it makes a kind of filter that allows some images to be sharper, even though it adds "noise" to the signal - in this case the image.

The Wyss Institute was willing to put up $1 million to develop the shoes as a commercial product. Collins says it isn't clear whether they will be marketed as a consumer product or a medical device. It could be either one, he notes.

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Publication:International Business Times - US ed.
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 9, 2010
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