Motion-sensing gloves teach proper technique to wheelchair users

“Arms are a wheelchair user’s legs,” says Cubitus team leader, Chandra Jayaraman.  

As the sole source of movement for manual wheelchairs, it makes sense that we should keep arms and shoulders as safe from injury as possible. Yet within the first year of use, 70 percent of wheelchair users experience some type of shoulder injury/pain, according to a study published in the PubMed.

Cubitus is a student team working on making life easier on wheelchair users. They want to monitor wheelchair user’s performance, detect flaws, and educate them about proper wheelchair form. The device will inform users early on about how to adjust their form before it becomes an injury that needs physical therapy.

The idea started with Jayaraman, a PhD student in systems and entrepreneurial engineering. He was doing research on wheelchair user mobility and patient therapy and saw a real need to prevent shoulder pain/injury among his research subjects.

“The problem is that rehab patients are only taught day- to-day living on a wheelchair. How to change your clothes in a wheelchair, how to get in a car in a wheelchair,” said Jayaraman. “But they are rarely taught how to push a wheelchair properly to avoid shoulder injury. When you are doing the same repeated task and hitting the same group of muscles everyday, your risk of injury increases. Improper form is going to be a big problem later on.”

Wheelchair users use their shoulders about 10 times more than able-bodied people, according to a study in Research Gate. When arms and shoulders are the solitary source of movement, they need to be protected. Once an injury puts them out of commission, a wheelchair user’s quality of life can be decreased.

“It’s very difficult to live an independent life once that happens,” said Jayaraman Someone has to take care of them and move them around.

So Jayaraman made it happen and recruited colleagues to join his team. The Cubitus team members include Adam Burns, a graduate student in civil and environmental engineering; Kinyetta Nance, a PhD student in library and information science and a TA in entrepreneurship classes; and Muda Khan, a junior in bioengineering with a minor in entrepreneurship.

So how does the Cubitus tech work? Since Spring 2014, Burns and Jayaraman have been developing gloves with sensors that will track movement and send it to the user’s smartphone. 

“When I was doing research on wheelchair users, we used 20k equipment to analyze the wheelchair user’s propulsion,” said Jayaraman. “Cubitus’ goal is to provide a low-cost option where users will access their daily wheelchair propulsion metrics and training on their mobile device.  None of these propulsion measures are currently available to the user except in a specialized rehab clinic. The Cubitus technology will increase their awareness of shoulder health by being able to monitor and correct their pushing form regularly.”

Burns anticipates that the cost of the technology and gloves will be around $250, a significant decrease from the 20k in lab equipment.

How will one be able to tell from the data if their form is correct?

“A baseline wheelchair propulsion form will be set for each user when they first receive Cubitus. After a given time the sensor data is collected and the summary will display on their smartphone. It will alert users if there is a significant deviation from their baseline optimal form.  Cubitus will give proper wheelchair propulsion training and feedback to improve the form,” said Jayamaran

 Cubitus has already received positive responses from rehab centers that like the accessibility of the technology. They did a demonstration of the prototype for a spinal cord group at the OSF Peoria Clinic.  The feedback from therapists was that they thought it was helpful as a training and tracking method to prevent repetitive injury.

Cubitus participated in the Cozad New Venture Competition, which in addition to providing thousands of dollars in funding, provides student startups a roadmap for success.

“The Cozad process really helped us crystallize the business ideas,” Jayaraman said. “It helped us put our future in perspective, develop market strategies, and we want this to be our future.”

“It’s important for us to be at the University of Illinois, as the No. 1 campus in accessibility, while providing a device that will change the lives of wheelchair users. That’s very cool to us. It’s at our core,” said Nance.