Overcoming Disabilities with New Technology
3D printing and assistive technology are making progress
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We’ve been discussing 3D printing a lot. It’s usually regarding manufacturing, aeronautics, fashion, and even food. But there’s a whole market out there that has been gaining traction: healthcare. Likewise, there are other assistive technologies emerging each year to help people overcome blindness, hearing loss, mobility concerns, and even lost or underdeveloped limbs.
Printing Functional Parts
Recently, 3DBio Therapeutics and the Microtia-Congenital Ear Deformity Institute announced that they have 3D printed a human ear using living tissue. The AuriNovo is a patient-specific, 3D-bioprinted living tissue ear implant that is currently undergoing clinical trials to evaluate the efficacy and safety for patients living with microtia, a congenital issue where one or both outer ears are underdeveloped or absent. This condition affects 1,500 infants born in the US each year. AuriNovo is designed to provide an alternative to the rib cage cartilage grafts or synthetic materials that are currently used to help microtia patients restore their outer ears.
The AuriNovo ear was used to assist a woman earlier this month. The procedure was performed by a team led by Dr. Arturo Bonilla, a leading pediatric ear reconstructive surgeon as well as founder/director of the Microtia-Congenital Ear Deformity Institute in San Antonio, TX. Speaking to The New York Times, Dr. Bonilla says, “If everything goes as planned, this will revolutionize the way this is done.” Beyond the trials performed at Dr. Bonilla’s institute, patients can also enroll at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, CA.
|Source: Dr. Arturo Bonilla, Microtia-Congenital Ear Institute|
Motor neuron disease affects 400,000 people worldwide, but neurons controlling eye movement are more resistant to degenerative diseases. LC Technologies have utilized this idea to produce its Eyegaze Edge device. Allowing users to control a computer by just using their eyes, Eyegaze Edge uses a small video camera attached to a tablet as well as pupil center/corneal reflection (PCCR). PCCR measures the distance between the center of the user’s pupil and the reflection of the camera’s LED light on the cornea to determine what the user is looking at to act like a traditional mouse.
On the other hand, there are about 39 million people in the world who qualify as legally blind. But, according to the World Health Organization, 90% have some level of light perception. Stephen Hicks, a neuroscientist at Oxford University, has developed a pair of prototype smart glasses that increase the contrast between light and dark. Using Epson computer displays, the glasses could provide a limited sense of vision by increasing the brightness of the closest object and simplifying the image to make everything more discernable. While he had only started this project in 2010, Mr. Hicks has gained assistance from the Royal Institute for the Blind and won prize money from the Google Impact Challenge Award to continue his work.
|Source: Stephen Hicks|
Moving with Motor Functions
Similar to the Eyegaze Edge mentioned above is Origin Instruments’ HeadMouse Nano, which uses a USB camera assist with accessing computers or tables. It tracks the movements of a reflective dot on the user’s forehead and can be triggered by a variety of alternate mice or by the length of time that the person’s head remains in the same spot. While this requires more motor ability, the HeadMouse Nano is adaptable for a variety of technology.
For the 1.5 million people in the world who are deaf and blind, Intact Solutions has developed the dbGLOVE to turn sensors set along the fingers into alphabetical tracings that can then be turned into computer text. Actuators then trace the letters back onto the hand, allowing deaf-blind users to operate computers and smartphones. The company is also working on the VERSO ring, which enables control over applications by moving your hands for those who struggle with finer motor dexterity.
Lastly, the company North (which was acquired by Google in 2020) released the Myo armband in 2014 to allow a person to control computers by reading the electricity produced by their skeletal muscles and then sending the signal through Bluetooth to a device. The armband was then adapted by Johns Hopkins University to allow control over advanced prosthetic limbs. While we haven’t seen any additions made to this technology as of late, the potential is still there for impressive technological growth and adaptation.
Keypoint Intelligence Opinion
“Currently, an estimate of one billion people around the world benefit from an assistive technology. That figure is expected to double by 2030 as the population ages,” said Marco Aleman, Assistant Director General of the Intellectual Property and Innovations Ecosystem Sector for the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). While this number seems daunting, it should be noted that WIPO also believes that many emerging technologies are expected to become more popular, including smart canes and balancing aids, advanced prosthetics like neuroproestheics and 3D printed custom pieces, as well as more brain-to-machine interfaces.
The concern is that while we have seen a glut of new technology to help those with vision impairment or loss of limbs, every person is unique in their needs and there is no “one size fits all” solution that can be applied in great numbers. This means that while new devices are being developed with each passing year, the challenges that many face require continuous innovation and adaptation by these developers. We will never be “done” with creating new assistive technologies, and we owe it to our friends and family who could benefit from these smart glasses and 3D printed prosthetics to keep developing them. Maybe then we won’t take our own physical and mental privileges for granted.
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