By Matt Windsor 
As published in UAB The Mix,Tomorrow land: Engineering lab explores the future of tech, teaching 

mix bicep curlBy now, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of the Fitbit, a digital-age pedometer that tracks your steps — and sleep patterns. You may well be wearing one yourself. Corey Shum, Director of UAB’s Enabling Technology Lab, is working with two local entrepreneurs, and the Engineering and Innovative Technology Development (EITD) group, to create a hyperaccurate Fitbit that doesn’t just watch you exercise — it makes sure you’re doing it right. It could also transform the process of rehabilitation after an injury.

Orthopedic surgeon Ken Jaffe, M.D., a 1982 graduate of the UAB School of Medicine and a former UAB faculty member now in private practice, was inspired by the high-tech motion-capture devices in the golf industry. “In the golf world, they have sensors you can put on your club to look at your club head speed and swing path,” Jaffe said. “I had the idea of using this technology for medical rehabilitation.” He also knew where to go for help turning the idea into reality. “I was introduced to some of the talent at UAB when I got my MBA” at the UAB Collat School of Business in 2003, Jaffe said. A former faculty member in the business school, Sanjay Singh, Ph.D., connected Jaffe and his business partner in the startup Management of Motion to Shum and the ETLab.

“They had the idea and they have business connections for commercializing it,” Shum said. “They came to us for a technical solution and the potential for schematics that they could then use to make a bunch of these devices.”

After an injury, patients are prescribed physical therapy exercises to help restore function, Shum explained. “It’s very important that you do these exercises correctly, so patients have to visit the therapist’s office several times a week to be evaluated.”

But if patients could instead take home a high-tech sensor vest packed with a number of motion sensors, they could get immediate feedback on their exercise performance. “You put these sensors on and then you do the exercise, and it’s a game — it tells you when you’re doing it wrong, and when you’re doing it right,” said Shum. “Then it uploads that information to a server so the clinician can review it and see how well you did. Instead of driving into town, you’re at home looking at a laptop. Again, we’re closing that loop quickly so that you’re not at home doing the exercise wrong and getting worse; you’re at home doing it right.”

Sports medicine specialists — and video game makers looking to re-create elite athletes’ moves — currently use ultrasonic technology for accurate motion capture. “But you have to be in a specially designed space, and it’s very expensive,” Shum said. “Those systems cost tens of thousands of dollars, and you’re not going to send that to somebody in a FedEx box.”

Engineers in the EITD are adapting off-the-shelf accelerometers, electronic gyros and magnetometers to build the sensor vest, and the ETLab is combining the data captured by the vest with graphics software to present this feedback to users in an intuitive way. “That’s one of the wonderful things about being here at UAB,” Shum said. “We can work with the folks at the MPAD (UAB’s Materials Processing and Applications Development lab), and EITD can fabricate the actual materials to NASA quality.”

The current system works well as a proof-of-concept test, with the sensors in small 3-D-printed boxes. “The goal is to get that sized down to something more like a Fitbit, and then maybe even smaller so you can have several of them in an article of clothing,” Shum said. “In the next phase, we want to get it to a place where it’s as small as it needs to be and all they need to do is send the schematics off to be mass-produced.”