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Access technology development also has strong economic potential

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An estimated 15 percent of people around the world live with some form of disability. Upstate universities are tackling the challenges faced by this segment of the population and coming up with innovative technologies to increase access.

A walker for elderly people that also monitors vital signs, and a cane that uses vibrations to allow deaf and blind people to easily navigate their environment: these are just a couple of the access technologies created by researchers in western New York.

According to Ryne Raffaelle, vice president of research at the Rochester Institute of Technology, their development could create an economic opportunity for the region.

“The pieces that are necessary are in place. I really think this could be one of the biggest economic development arenas in our entire region. We’re not the only one with a growing elderly population, this is true throughout the entire country and throughout the entire world,” says Raffaelle. 

RIT professor Ferat Sahin says his team’s smart walker addresses one of the biggest issues facing health care systems and elderly people globally.

“The elderly falls are the number one threat to their safety plus the economic[al] impact of that to the Medicare and other health systems.”

The smart walker is designed to monitor the balance, temperature, breathing and heart rate in patients. The accumulated information can be used by physicians to correct care strategies, inform medication decisions and help avoid falls.

Sahin says it’s also motorized and can maneuver itself to act as a support aid, or send an alert to emergency services if a fall does occur.

But it’s not only physical conditions that are being addressed. Psychological needs are being tackled in the upstate area too.

Researcher Stephen Jacobs is working on a computer game to help with the therapeutic treatment of people diagnosed with anxiety or autism spectrum disorder.

He says the program feeds off the biological indicators of patients that cause their avatar (or virtual "self") in the game to react in a certain way, if emotions are high.

“When they sit down they’re connected to a bio-feedback system that reads biological indicators that we know relate to emotional state. So things like skin conductivity and heart rate.”

Jacobs says the goal of the game is for patients to learn how to stabilize their emotions themselves, thus enabling them to get through different game levels.

He says the avatar will be put in situations that would make its player anxious, (a germaphobe might have a lot of dirty trash cans surrounding them in the game, for example), and the player needs to control their reactions to progress to the next screen.

Ryne Raffaelle says upstate New York has the research base, the community drive, and the manufacturing capability to address the challenges facing a range of populations.

And he says, demand is high for affordable and effective solutions to widespread challenges.

WXXI/Finger Lakes Reporter for the Innovation Trail