AT Update Logo

ATU597 – Pneumatic Adaptive Clothing with Dan Preston of Rice University

Play

AT Update Logo

Your weekly dose of information that keeps you up to date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist people with disabilities and special needs.

Special Guest:
Dan Preston – Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering – Rice University
Website: pi.rice.edu
Stories:
Learning with Annie Story: https://bit.ly/3fpGMom
Smart Biteguard Story: https://bit.ly/3Fv3OVr

——————————
If you have an AT question, leave us a voice mail at: 317-721-7124 or email tech@eastersealscrossroads.org

Check out our web site: http://www.eastersealstech.com

Follow us on Twitter: @INDATAproject

Like us on Facebook: www.Facebook.com/INDATA

—– Transcript Starts Here —–

Dan Preston:

Hi, this is Dan Preston. I’m an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Rice University, and this is your Assistive Technology Update.

Josh Anderson:

Hello and welcome to your Assistive Technology Update, a weekly dose of information that keeps you up to date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist individuals with disabilities and special needs. I’m your host Josh Anderson with the INDATA Project at Easter Seals Crossroads in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana. Welcome to episode 597 of Assistive Technology Update. It’s scheduled to be released on November 4, 2022.

On today’s show we are excited to welcome Dan Preston from Rice University on. He is here to tell us all about some work they’ve been doing with pneumatic devices embedded in clothing to make adaptive clothing. Very cool stuff that will probably have some amazing implications sometime in the future. We’ve also got a couple of stories about a new device for learning braille known as the Annie, as well as a story about a new smart bite guard that can be used to control different devices. So let’s go ahead and get on with the show.

Listeners I’ve told you many times on here about our other shows, Assistive Technology Frequently Asked Questions, or ATFAQ, and Accessibility Minute. These podcasts are available, well, wherever you got this podcast probably, but they’re also available on our website, which is eastersealstech.com. And I wanted to take a moment just to tell you about some of the other great things that you can find over there at eastersealstech.com. Of course you can find all of our podcasts, this one as well as the others, but you can also find a wealth of other knowledge and great assistive technology things. As you all know INDATA is the Tech Act provider for the state of Indiana, but if you’re looking for your Local Tech Act provider well you can find that there too. You can go to eastersteelstech.com/states or just find it from the dropdown menus.

Podcasting are not the only thing that we do, you can also find tech tips. These come out every Monday and are a short video that will show you a piece of assistive technology, another adaptive device, or maybe a different way of using something in order to help individuals with disabilities and special needs. You can find out about our full day trainings. You can also sign up for them, attend, and even go back and look at the archives to find some of our old trainings and watch those at your leisure. You can find out about our different programs, including the Clinical Assistive Technology Program and all the amazing things that INDATA does.

If you’re here in the state of Indiana and you’d like to access any of our services, be that the library, the demonstration program, or the depot, all that information is located right there on eastersealstech.com. You’ll also find blog posts and just tons and tons of content all related to assistive technology. And if you go to eastersealstech.com and click on this show a full transcript will appear right below so that if you would like a transcript of this show or more information about it you can always check that out on the web website.

And I’m pretty sure I tell you this folks quite often but if you ever have a question, a comment, someone you’d like to see for a guest or anything along those lines please reach out to us. You can reach us via email at tech@eastersealscrossroads.org. Call our listener line at (317) 721-7124, or drop us a line on Twitter @INDATAProject. You can also find ways to contact us through the website itself at eastersealstech.com while you’re checking that out. So again, if you do enjoy this show and you’re looking for more information on assistive technology you can always check out our sister podcast wherever you get your podcast, or you can also go to eastersealstech.com and check out everything there is to know about our program, access our blog posts, our YouTube channel, our podcasts, and tons of other information related to assistive technology. I thank you so much for listening, now let’s go ahead and get on with the show.

Our first story today comes to us from yourstory.com, it’s titled Learning with Annie, How Tinkerbell Labs Is Rethinking Assistive Technology For The Visually Impaired written by Mayuri Ramanan. It talks about a place called Tinkerbell Labs, and what they’ve done is they’ve created a device which they’ve called Annie, and they actually named it after Anne Sullivan, who was Helen Keller’s teacher. And essentially what this device does is it’s kind of an interactive device that’s able to help teach individuals who are blind or visually impaired braille reading, writing, and really just anything that they could kind of do with Braille.

It talks about as you kind of go down here through the story that they kind of saw this as a major need, a lot of schools maybe just weren’t teaching braille or didn’t have the available resources to do so, so they kind of created this and it looks like they created at least the original one with just a raspberry pie coded python and kind of made a addicted teacher kind of thing that was designed to help just teach the braille alphabet. But once they created this they’re like, “Oh, well this could do a whole lot more.”

And really one of the things that they saw and one of the things they really saw this is in need is able bodied individuals, so sighted individuals, you do go to school and you learn things, but then you go home and you read to learn and you maybe do some other things. You look at pictures, you do all this other stuff to continue that learning at home. For individuals who are blind or visually impaired that may not be a complete option. Some this it says Annie allows any child in any context at home or at school to learn fundamental literacy and numeracy on their own. So again, it gives them that autonomy, that ability to be able to learn at home, to be able to kind of help themselves, but also to be braille literate. I mean, think about how important that is and it’s not something that’s taught a whole lot of places, and that’s where it kind of gets down into some other kind of information.

In order to teach someone braille you need to be very skilled, you need to be a teacher who’s an expert in that kind of thing. And not all, or I would venture to say not most, teachers really have that ability, but even if they do have that ability, the time for the other students and everything else. And then parents, unless the parent happens to be visually impaired and no braille as well they’re not going to be I don’t want to say much help, of course they’re going to be help with support and those kind of things, but they’re not probably going to be able to actually teach the student braille. So with this it does say that it’s fully inclusive and it equips parents and regular teachers to cater to a child with special needs. And it can also be used in mainstream schools. Now that’s a huge difference because normally if you’re blind or visually impaired and you’re going to go to just a mainstream school, unless you can learn braille on your own you are probably not going to probably get that training or anything else.

I won’t read this entire story to you folks, I’ll let you kind of go and check it out for yourself. I will put a link down in the show notes.

But just a couple of other things kind of about this Tinkerbell Labs. One thing is they did not set it up as a non-profit. They said non-profit, so they didn’t want to be a charity or anything like that because of longevity. They wanted to be able to make something that could make a profitable product so that way it could stay around. It’s always one of the issues when you are a nonprofit is if you are relying mostly on donors, donations and everything else then you will be completely perfect and able to do all the services you want as long as those donors continue to donate. And I think over the course of the last few years with pandemics, with shifting priorities around the world, that’s not a sustainable model to kind of keep with. So in order to make sure that they were sustainable and could innovate and implement new things they decided to set this up as a for-profit kind of agency.

Also, just another kind of quick thing in here, they’re also making things games. So making games kind of built into here. So it’s not just repetitive, boring learning to read using braille kind of stuff, but actually have some games in there. And some of those are multiplayer, you can play against others. So I mean who doesn’t want to learn faster when I can learn faster than the other student and kind of make a game and some competition about it? So we’ll put a link to this story down in the show notes, but again, this is talking about Annie named after Anne Sullivan who is Helen Keller’s teacher, which is a device that helps individuals who are blind or visually impaired learn braille in a fun and engaging way. Make sure that you click on the link down in the show notes, check out the story for yourself.

So our next story comes from Futurity, and this one is titled Smart Mouth Guard Uses Bite To Control All Kinds Of Devices. This is posted by the National University of Singapore and it talks about a new mouth guard device. And essentially what this is, if you think of a mouth guard, so think of you’re playing a sport or something like that and you’ve got the kind of mouth guard in there to make sure your teeth don’t get cracked, looks a lot like that, a piece of plastic that actually goes around the teeth. But this is a bite controlled opto electronic system. It says it can translate complex bite patterns into data inputs with 98% accuracy and control such devices as computers, smartphones, and wheelchairs.

So we’re always all about new access kind of ways around here and new ways for people to be able to control their devices, especially when you figure individuals have so many different kinds of impairments and then other things that they can do really well. So if I’ve got great eye control and stuff then maybe an eye gaze system is kind of the way to go or something with eye tracking. A strong voice, easy annunciation, well perhaps voice recognition is kind of the way to go. And there’s also brain computer interfaces, there’s other controllers and things that can connect to almost anything that we can willingly control and we can use that to control our different devices.

But this is a whole new kind of bite one. Now there’s been bite switches for sure, but they’re usually kind of single input kind of things. Maybe I have one thing I can control with a bite. I’ve seen ones that can be used with a tongue before and kind of move around a little bit, so there are some different ones out there, but this is a little bit different because it actually has complex kind of bite patterns. So as I change and maybe move some different things around perhaps I can control different things and control different stuff.

If we go down it talks about maybe some reasons to find new input methods, says voice recognition requires a large operating memory that needs to operate in a low noise environment. Eye tracking, you need the camera to be mounted in front of the user, it’s prone to fatigue. And then although brain computer interfaces have really improved the technology is very invasive and usually requires very cumbersome wired instruments. But it says here the bite force is a promising area that is not well understood or capitalized, but it says this can provide high precision control but require minimum skill. So that was the concept with kind of deciding to use this bite based assistive technology.

So right now they are making these prototypes and something that really kind of caught my eye about this is these are prototypes of course and probably not what it will eventually look like in the future, but it costs about $70 US to produce these in the lab. So if you really think if this is something that becomes a consumer good, if becomes a piece of assistive technology and is done on a larger scale, well it could be even less than that. So if it could really give you the control and everything, especially something that doesn’t take a lot of learning, a lot of training, or a lot of skill can be a great thing that would really be able to help individuals control their devices who maybe don’t have some of the other skills or abilities to use some of those other input devices.

We’ll put a link to this over in the show notes that you can go and check it out for yourself. But again, another great input method coming out of the University of Singapore with a smart mouth guard that will allow you to control your different devices just with your bite.

Listeners, we’ve talked on this show before about adaptive and assistive clothing. Now many of these items use computers and electricity and sometimes those can come with some drawbacks. Well our guest today is Dan Preston, assistant professor of mechanical engineering for Rice University, and he’s here to tell us about pneumatic actuators and other things his team is working on and the implications they could have for individuals with disabilities. Dan, welcome to the show.

Dan Preston:

Thanks Josh for having me, glad to be here.

Josh Anderson:

I’m really glad to get to talk to you and I can’t wait to get into talking about the technology, but before we do that could you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and your background?

Dan Preston:

Yes, definitely. I’m an assistant professor here at Rice University and I have been for about the past three years. Before that I got a PhD at MIT and then did two years of post-doctoral research at Harvard University. Here at Rice I’m running a group called the Preston Innovation Lab, and broadly we look at research problems that involve energy, materials, and fluids. But one of our really big research thrusts right now is on soft and wearable robots and assistive devices and so I’m excited to talk more about some of our work there today.

Josh Anderson:

I am too, and hopefully we get into quite a bit of it. But let’s get right into kind of what I found and what kind of really led me to you to have you on the show. What are these pneumatic circuits for assistive garments? Can you tell us about these?

Dan Preston:

Yes, and just to give a little bit of context before I jump in, there are already a lot of really fascinating and useful technologies that use pneumatic systems in wearables to help apply forces and induce motions on the bodies of people, especially people with potentially functional limitations. And so the actuation technologies and capabilities actually are already there but when you look at the way that these devices are powered and the way that they are controlled oftentimes we either see onboard hard and bulky electronics and batteries, things like that, or we see these tethers where you’re physically tethered to some kind of computer and power supply, things like that that limit your movement range.

And so with that in mind we said to ourselves, “How can we kind of address these problems first in the electronic control with these rigid and bulky computers, and then second, how can we sort of address this problem in terms of the power sources?” And so in answering the question about control we set out to develop these fluidic computers where inside of the textile based wearable device without any electronics we essentially replaced voltage with pressurized air and we replaced current with the flow of that air and built fluidic digital logic that can replicate any of the functionality of an electronic computer.

Josh Anderson:

Wow, that’s really, really, really cool. I’m sitting here trying to wrap my head around that kind of as you talk about it. So where did that idea come from? Where did the idea come from to be able to use the air in place of the other technology?

Dan Preston:

It actually goes back several decades. In the past in defense applications folks were looking at how to design controllers that wouldn’t be affected by electromagnetic pulses or jamming of signals. And they tried to implement this using fluidic computers much like the one that we’ve developed in our recent work. In our case we’ve just ported it to a new system and that came with a lot of challenges in terms of using air as our working fluid to keep it lightweight, and also developing the entire system just within sheets of textile. But the actual concept for a fluidic computer again has been around for decades.

Josh Anderson:

Wow, that is really wild. So whom could this kind of system really assist and what kinds of I guess things could it do within their clothing?

Dan Preston:

Well in our case the system that we’ve demonstrated already can do things like store memory, make decisions, respond to the environment, maybe take measurements about the user and respond to those stimuli. And so this is really useful for people that maybe need just some really low level of control inside of their assistive wearable or garment. So one of the demonstrations that we showed that might be targeted for people with an overhead mobility functional limitation, they have difficulty reaching above the level of their shoulders. Maybe they would have trouble putting on for example their hood when it’s raining or they get cold. And so we showed a demonstration where they can instead just touch a patch of their garment either on the chest or on the sleeve and it will automatically put their hood up for them. And again, the system is made only out of textiles and we’re using pressurized air to achieve this behavior.

Josh Anderson:

Nice. So they’re not wearing something big or bulky or really with a whole lot of I guess extra to it as far as weight and everything else so it’s not causing another barrier while solving one.

Dan Preston:

Right, exactly.

Josh Anderson:

I know you said that you’ve kind of got the prototype with that, what are some other maybe kind of uses you could tell us about that you see this maybe going to in the future or other things that you’re kind of maybe testing out with it?

Dan Preston:

One of the things that we’ve also already looked at and demonstrated is use with actuators, in this case these pneumatic textile based actuators that can apply forces to the body. So we’ve shown a demonstration where we can use this electronic computer, or excuse me where we can use this fluidic computer inside of the textile sheets to control an actuator that helps someone lift their arm at the shoulder joint. So it actually applies the force you need to lift your arm, execute that path of motion. And so we’re excited about that. One of the things we’re trying to do now in our ongoing work is actually sense when someone has an intent to move part of their body, maybe their arm, maybe even when they want to for example close their hand but may have some limitation in doing so, and in sensing that apply just the right amount of force that the user needs to be able to complete that action.

Josh Anderson:

Oh wow, that would be amazing. And I don’t want to get too technical I guess but what kind of system would you use to sense when they want to do that movement?

Dan Preston:

So in our case with the system for control being completely fluidic we would have to use a fluidic sensor to interface with this fluidic computer. Again, everything being based on pressurized air. And so we would ask ourselves how can we build some sort of a fluidic or pressurized air based sensor? And it might look something a lot like a tube that for example as you start to move through this motion path and we want to detect the intent to move, maybe the tube gets deformed or kinked as you start to make the motion and we can sense that the tube maybe has been deformed or kinked, maybe that prevents some airflow. And with that signal the computer can take over and sort of of apply the assistance needed to go through the rest of the motion.

Josh Anderson:

Wow, like I said that would be absolutely amazing, especially just for like you said the folks with some mobility challenges or weakness that can actually sit there and give them just that little extra push, that little bit more that they need. And really I know that grip strength and full hand motion is a big challenge for a lot of individuals, those with disabilities, those in the aging community and everything else so I could really see how that could help out a whole lot of folks.

Dan Preston:

Right. We’re pretty excited about it and especially since we were able to also test the durability of this approach. One of the exciting things that we found out, we really put it through the wringer here, we went through 20,000 cycles of turning this computer circuit on and off. We also folded it in half like you might experience for one of your garments. We did that a million times. And then we put it through the washing machine 20 times, and we also even ran it over with a car 10 times. And after all that found that it still worked just as well as it did before all of those durability tests.

Josh Anderson:

Oh, that’s amazing. I don’t even think my normal clothes would make it through that long, so that’s really great. But it’s great that you’re also doing all that testing because man there’s just nothing more frustrating at least with the folks that I’ve worked with throughout my career, than having something that’s amazingly helpful, that’s really great, that’s in the shop more than it’s actually on your body, or actually being used for what you need it for. So I’m glad you guys are taking the time to do all the testing and everything with it as well.

Dan Preston:

Right. Yeah, it’s been pretty exciting so far to see some of the progress and also look at where we can potentially go. One of the directions that we’re taking now, we’ve already shown some work on this as well, is I’ve talked a lot about using this pressurized air for the computer but that might for some of the listeners here raise the question of well where does the pressurized air come from? Do we still need some bulky or rigid compressed air canister right? And in our case we’ve also worked on some energy harvesting, again in these totally soft textile based wearables. We have a system right now that takes energy every time you have a foot strike, every time you take a step, and stores that. And in fact we were really excited to find out that the system that we developed works even better than electronic counterparts. So in our case we’re just building up pressurized air to use with our fluidic computer and with our pneumatic actuators.

Josh Anderson:

Oh that’s great. So basically it’s just something kind of in the shoe or something. So every time I take a step it’s just using that energy from my foot pressing and using that as the energy to power the system?

Dan Preston:

Yes, in a nutshell that’s exactly what’s going on. We had to go into the weeds a little bit on the engineering side looking at the thermo fluidics behind how to design and optimize the system. But at the end of the day every time you take a step you’re just pushing on a small bladder in the insole of the shoe and using that to pressurize air somewhere else in the wearable garment.

Josh Anderson:

Nice. And that could have a lot of different uses I’m sure. And that’s great because you are just… And I can’t remember the name for the clothes system where you’re using up the energy that you’re creating, it’s been way too long since college for that one. But that’s great that you’re finding oh just new ways to keep it as an all kind of inclusive system. That’s really, really cool.

Dan Preston:

We are quite excited about the work. Oh, go ahead.

Josh Anderson:

Oh no, go ahead. Sorry about that.

Dan Preston:

No, no, I was just going to say we’ve been pretty excited about some of the progress so far, but if you wanted to jump in certainly happy to continue the discussion from there.

Josh Anderson:

Oh no, I was just actually going to jump in and say you’ve got these great things that you’re doing, like I said not having to just wear a whole system, stay plugged in, all the things that you brought up kind of at the beginning. Kind of way, way down the road where do you see this maybe going and you can even kind of moonshot this one, but where can you see it going in the future?

Dan Preston:

Well we’d like to see these things on the shelves such that people can actually purchase and use them at home. So right now we’re still at a pretty low level of technology readiness. We are working on this in the lab but we’re working on getting some intellectual property out. And then we’re from there we’re going to think about whether we can put together an early stage startup and see what we can do.

So on the technical side what do we have in mind for the longer term? We want to see essentially garments that you can buy at the store. You don’t need to supply any power because we are interested in doing that energy harvesting I mentioned right on board. And we’re also excited about putting this fluidic computation into the garments as well, such that we don’t need any kind of an electronic computers or anything that might degrade in the wash and might be uncomfortable to have in your clothing. And so if we can get onboard energy harvesting and this onboard fluidic computation all into assistive wearables that we can purchase at the store, that’s sort of the end goal. And I think maybe 10 years, maybe less if we really work hard, but that’s my vision.

Josh Anderson:

That will be awesome, and I look forward to hopefully being able to see that. Dan, if our listeners want to find out more kind of about the research of the project and everything else what’s the best way for them to do that?

Dan Preston:

Well definitely we keep our website up to date, our website for the Preston Innovation Lab, we call it the PiLab. So our website is pi.rice.edu.

Josh Anderson:

All right. And we will put that link down in the show notes so that folks can easily find that and kind of follow along and see as it goes because yeah, when I first read about this I was intrigued and then as I read deeper and deeper I really wanted to find out more about the kind of energy harvesting and everything else, and just really cool stuff. And I hope that little less than 10 years maybe, but even in 10 years if something can be out there and readily available for individuals it can make a huge difference. So I love learning about what you guys are doing, but we’ll definitely put that down there so that folks can go over and check it out and watch the progress as everything develops.

Dan Preston:

Yeah that’s great, I really appreciate it, and if any of the listeners take a look and have any feedback I’m also always happy to chat, my contact info is on there as well.

Josh Anderson:

All right, we will make sure to put that down there. Well Dan, thank you so much for coming on today, telling us about all the amazing work you guys are doing there, and we wish you the best of luck and can’t wait to have you on maybe 10 years down the road, maybe even less, and find out where folks can get these for themselves.

Dan Preston:

Well, perfect. Thanks for having me.

Josh Anderson:

Do you have a question about assistive technology? Do you have a suggestion for someone we should interview on an Assistive Technology Update? If so call our listener line at (317) 721-7124. Send us an email at tech@eastersealscrossroads.org, or shoot us a note on Twitter @INDATAProject. Our captions and transcripts for the show are sponsored by the Indiana Telephone Relay Access Corporation, or INTRAC. You can find out more about INTRAC at relayindiana.com. A special thanks to Nicole Prieto for scheduling our amazing guests and making a mess of my schedule. Today’s show was produced, edited, hosted, and fraught over by yours truly. The opinions expressed by our guests are their own and may or may not reflect those of the INDATA Project, Easter Seals Crossroads, our supporting partners or this host. This was your Assistive Technology Update and I’m Josh Anderson with the INDATA Project at Easters Seals Crossroads in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana. We look forward to seeing you next time. Bye bye.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.