When he was a 24-year-old medical student living in London, Faii Ong was assigned to care for a 103-year-old patient who suffered from Parkinson’s, the progressive neurological condition that affects a person’s ease of movement. After watching her struggle to eat a bowl of soup, Ong asked another nurse what more could be done to help the woman. “There’s nothing,” he was grimly told.
Ong, now 26, didn’t accept the answer. He began to search for a solution that might offset the tremulous symptoms of Parkinson’s, a disease that affects one in 500 people, not through drugs but physics. After evaluating the use of elastic bands, weights, springs, hydraulics, and even soft robotics, Ong settled on a simpler solution, one that he recognized from childhood toys. “Mechanical gyroscopes are like spinning tops: they always try to stay upright by conserving angular momentum,” he explains. “My idea was to use gyroscopes to instantaneously and proportionally resist a person’s hand movement, thereby dampening any tremors in the wearer’s hand.”
Together with a number of other students from Imperial College London, Ong worked in the university’s prototyping laboratory to run numerous tests. An early prototype of a device, called GyroGlove, proved his instinct correct. Patients report that wearing the GyroGlove, which Ong believes to be the first wearable treatment solution for hand tremors, is like plunging your hand into thick syrup, where movement is free but simultaneously slowed. In benchtop tests, the team found the glove reduces tremors by up to 90 percent.
GyroGlove’s design is simple. It uses a miniature, dynamically adjustable gyroscope, which sits on the back of the hand, within a plastic casing attached to the glove’s material. When the device is switched on, the battery-powered gyroscope whirs to life. Its orientation is adjusted by a precession hinge and turntable, both controlled by a small circuit board, thereby pushing back against the wearer’s movements as the gyroscope tries to right itself.
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While the initial prototypes of the device still require refinements to size and noise, Alison McGregor, professor of musculoskeletal biodynamics at Imperial College, who has been a mentor to the team, says the device “holds great promise and could have a significant impact on users’ quality of life.” Helen Matthews of the Cure Parkinson’s Trust agrees: “GyroGlove will make everyday tasks such as using a computer, writing, cooking, and driving possible for sufferers,” she says.
In 2014, Ong’s company, GyroGear, made it to the finals of OneStart, the world’s largest biotech business competition. Last year the team was named inaugural champion of the F Factor, the European Union’s largest tech challenge, which was founded by X Factor music mogul Simon Cowell in an effort to discover and support a new generation of technology entrepreneurs. The £10,000 prize money has provided the bulk of funding for the GyroGlove’s development and operation costs.
Challenges, nevertheless, must be solved before the glove will be commercially available. “Gyroscopes must be balanced properly according to the speeds at which they are operating,” explains Ong. “Simple as they are, being able to spin them silently and reliably at thousands of RPM is another key challenge.”
While Ong and the team have yet to set an exact launch date and cost for the glove, they hope to launch in the U.K. before September at a price between £400 to £600 ($550 to $850). Beyond that, Ong has plans to address other tremors elsewhere in the body, such as the legs. He also believes that the device could be used in professional contexts where the wearer requires a steady hand, such as surgery, photography, and even sports.
Among Parkinson’s sufferers, the device has generated a significant amount of hope, according to Sarah Webb, founder of the South London Younger Parkinson’s Network. “People with Parkinson’s take a cocktail of drugs daily, which over time won’t be so effective,” she says. “The GyroGlove is an exciting and a completely different concept: something we can wear, something we can feel the benefits of immediately and something which will make our lives easier and allow us to get on with our daily lives.”