Vibrating Wristwatch Could Aid Parkinson’s Sufferers

Microsoft’s prototype Emma Watch enables a user to write her name for the first time in years.

A Microsoft Corp. researcher has built a prototype wristwatch that offers hope for sufferers of Parkinson’s Disease.

The device, known as the Emma Watch, uses a pattern of vibrations to disrupt the tremors that characterize the disease, and has allowed one user to reclaim an important part of her everyday life. “It makes me forget that I have a tremor,” notes Emma Lawton, a 32-year-old UK-based Parkinson’s patient appearing in a YouTube video published by Microsoft. “I’ve just written my name for the first time in ages.”

Developed by a Microsoft researcher who was previously part of a team working on Xbox gaming, the Emma Watch uses “a combination of sensor technologies” to monitor the tremors and other physical symptoms of Parkinson’s. It then counteracts the tremors with vibrations. An app in a Windows 10 tablet controls the speed of the vibrations.

 

Microsoft’s prototype Emma Watch used vibrations to quiet the hand tremors in a 32-year-old UK woman. An app in a Windows 10 tablet controls the speed of the vibrations. (Source: Microsoft Corp.)

 

Haiyan Zhang, the researcher who developed the watch, said in the video that she used “coin-cell-sized motors” to create the vibrations. It’s not clear, however, how those vibrations work to improve the symptoms of Parkinson’s. In response to a question from Design News, a Microsoft spokesman said only that the vibrations are “proactively intervening with the signals being sent from the brain.”

In the video, Lawton is at first unable to draw a straight line without the use of the watch. After she places the watch on her wrist, however, she writes her name legibly and draws a near-perfect square.

 

Without the watch (at left), Emma Lawton’s handwriting is barely legible. With the watch, her Parkinson’s tremors are quieted. (Source: Microsoft Corp.)

 

Even Zhang seems slightly baffled by the effect of the Emma Watch. “I personally think that what this is doing is short-circuiting whatever feedback loop there is between the brain and the hand that’s causing the tremors,” Zhang said in the video. In a subsequent blog, she states that the watch “injects white noise” into the feedback loop to disrupt the tremors.

Parkinson’s is a disease of the central nervous system that affects about 10 million people worldwide and currently has no cure. Symptoms include shaking, rigidity and slowness of movement. Many Parkinson’s sufferers have difficulty writing, drawing or doing other simple manual tasks because of the tremors.

Microsoft has clearly stated that the Emma Watch is not a cure for Parkinson’s, but rather is a way to manage one of the disease’s most debilitating symptoms. The company has started a new initiative called Project Emma that explores the use of sensors and artificial intelligence to detect and monitor symptoms of the disease.

Zhang is also working with a neuroscience team in London to set up initial scientific trials for the device. Lawton will serve as a consultant for that study.

Microsoft currently has only one Emma Watch. The software giant has announced no plans to release it as a product.

Senior technical

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