Wearables help people with physical impairments

While wearable devices have struggled to gain traction beyond early adopters, innovations in the category are going beyond basics like fitness tracking to serve those with physical challenges. This new breed is helping people with impaired motor skills and visual and audio function improve their wellbeing and live better lives.


A potential game changer for people with Parkinson’s, the Emma watch from Microsoft helped Emma Lawton, who suffers from the disease, write again by reducing hand tremors. The watch uses vibrating motors similar to those found in mobile phones to distract the brain into focusing on something other than trying to control the limbs. The watch’s creator, Microsoft Research Innovation Director Haiyan Zhang, believes the device stops a feedback loop that causes the tremors in Lawton and could stop it in other sufferers as well, though it will be a few years before the watch is available for purchase.


In a modern twist on sign language, the SignAloud glove recognizes hand gestures and translates them into text or speech. Each glove contains sensors that record hand position and movement and send data wirelessly via Bluetooth to a central computer. The computer looks at the gesture data through various sequential statistical regressions, similar to a neural network. If the data match a gesture in American sign language, then the associated word or phrase is spoken through a speaker. The gloves were created by two University of Washington students, who won a $10,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for their achievement.


While new technology is being created to assist the visually impaired community, the founders of BONX didn’t set out with that mission in mind. Based out of Tokyo and now available in the U.S. after a successful Indiegogo campaign, the device combines a rugged Bluetooth earpiece and unique group-talk app, allowing friends talk on the go even when they’re on opposite ends of the globe or in harsh environments. Navigating rough terrain was once an obstacle for blind cyclist Bobby McMullen, who relied on “rider guides” to get around but now uses the BONX instead, serving as an inspiration for others with visual impairments.