Lately, there’s been an explosion in wearable technology, like human exoskeletons, which are being developed to help those with disabilities. Most of us might imagine human exoskeletons to look robotic, like something out of Transformers or Iron Man--hard, clunky, metal attachments to the arms and legs.
That might be fine for adults, but for babies and toddlers with developmental delays, designing comfortable, appealing exoskeletons is a challenge.
Delaware Public Media’s Eli Chen takes us into a laboratory -- where researchers are creating exoskeletons for infants that are fashionable and functional
When I met Sarah Grace, she was 14 months old. And she was surrounded by colorful toys and smiling women. One of them was Michele Lobo, a physical therapy researcher at University of Delaware.
“How’s your time in Delaware?” she cooed at Sarah Grace.
Sarah Grace is incredibly cute, but that’s not the only reason she’s the center of attention here. She has a condition called arthrogryposis, which means she was born with joint contractures in her arms. Her arms hang limp at her sides and her hands and fingers are curved towards her body.
If she wants to move an object, she has to sway her arms and make a scooping motion with her hands.
“For the first eight months, she couldn’t use her arms,” said Valarie, her mother, who requested not to have their last name used in this story to protect her daughter’s identity. Valarie, Sarah Grace and Susan, the grandmother, traveled to Delaware from their home in Georgia.
They come to see doctors who specialize in arthrogryposis at Nemours/AI DuPont Hospital for Children. But they also swing by the University of Delaware’s STAR campus. When Sarah Grace was about eight months, Valarie signed her up to be a test subject for a pediatric exoskeleton called the Playskin Lift.
Michele Lobo leads its development.
“Exo-Skeletons are devices that are supposed to help people move so for children who have muscle weakness due to a variety of problems like premature birth,” said Lobo. “They often need devices to lift their arms against gravity.”
The ability to move arms to reach and interact objects is critical for more than just simple tasks like dressing, eating, bathing--it’s also important for brain development in babies because that’s how they gather information. Many studies, including those conducted by Lobo herself, recognize that children with impaired motor skills will have significant gaps in critical thinking skills as they get older--unless they are helped by early intervention.
That’s where exoskeletons, like the Playskin Lift can help. The sleeves of Sarah Grace’s onesie have inserts filled with bundled music wires. The music wires help lift her arms, without requiring much energy from her.
“It’s sort of like the feeling you would get like you were on a trampoline, it springs you back up to that lifted position,” said Lobo.
And the cylindrical shape of the wires gives her the ability to move her arm in multiple directions.
Most exoskeletons built for physical therapy don’t look like the Playskin Lift. They’re a lot more noticeable, like the Wilmington Robotic Exoskeleton, or WREX, which is made out of hard plastic and metal, giving kids a robotic appearance.
Lobo says WREX is effective as long as its user actually uses it. But here’s the problem these hard exoskeletons pose for kids.
“It was really uncomfortable for them,” said Lobo. “They couldn’t lay down and roll around safely. They couldn’t fit in their high chairs, they couldn’t fit in their Megasaucer and play their toys, so then it became a process of putting on and taking off the skeleton.”
This inconvenience over time becomes an annoying enough for both kids and their parents that they give up on using the device. Lobo couldn’t stand the fact that many of her subjects were not using these devices.
“That was what was keeping me up all night,” said Lobo. It was really frustrating that you had something to help these kids but then kids would choose poor arm function rather than using it.”
So she put her energy into finding an alternative that, unlike the typical exoskeleton, was affordable, appealing and comfortable for kids and parents.
“We started to figure out if we can bring together fashion, engineering, and rehab and see if we can create a solution that people can wear as a garment and that garment will support your movements,” she said.
Her project required the help of fashion designers, namely her PhD student Martha Hall.
“Are you shy? I won’t tell anyone your measurements,” said Hall, as she approached Sarah Grace with measuring tape.
Sarah Grace, like most babies, grow pretty quickly, so her garments have to be adjusted quite often.
“I do a fitting, so the kind of fitting you’d do if you were getting your prom dress altered,” said Hall.
And she makes sure to consider the parent’s input as well.
“You mentioned that her sleeves are too short?” Hall asked Valarie.
“It hits a little below her wrist...it finishes right here and I thought it should be right here,” said Valarie.
A year ago, Hall wasn’t working on anything related to physical therapy. Her master’s thesis in fashion was focused on Hollywood dresses from the 1930s. But now she uses her knowledge of fabrics to help make the Playskin Lift attractive and functional.
“Sometimes we use fabric you would use like activewear, like a ballerina costume,” said Hall, as she takes out fabric on a table she uses to repair the Playskin Lifts. “We have a design that uses lingerie fabric, which is really cool. This is actually corset fabric, so it’s stretchy and it’s got holes in it so it’s comfortable.”
And they’ve also made themed exoskeletons that allow kids to dress up like Elmo, a character in Frozen, or Spiderman.
The materials required to make the Playskin Lift are very inexpensive, about 10 to 30 dollars at your local craft store. That’s a big deal considering the Wilmington Robotic Exoskeleton runs about $5,000 per arm. Lobo has posted how-to manuals for making the Playskin Lift online, but long-term she hopes to make the product more accessible.
“It would be great if people didn’t have to do it themselves, like if a company could pick up on this technology and make it inexpensively and get it out to people,” said Lobo. “So that is the ultimate goal, to have things like this on the market.”
It’s not certain how soon the Playskin Lift may hit the market. It could take a couple years or more. And they’ve only tested the product on 36 kids across 15 states, which is a small sample size. But Valarie says that at least for Sarah Grace, it’s made a big difference.
“From where she started until where she is know is just a hundred percent different,” said Valarie. “Before [the Playskin Lift], she never used her hands at all. And very soon after just starting with the onesie, even a week or two, she started realizing they were there, kind of picking up toys. When she has the wires in, she can do almost everything a child her age needs to do.”
As researchers continue to develop the Playskin Lift, the hope is that it will help Sarah Grace and others keep up with their peers as they get older. And it might, as long as the kids keep wearing it.