Young inventor puts a sock in it

Socks for Physiotherapy, or SoPhy, are smart wearables invented by PhD candidate Deepti Aggarwal, which use pressure and movement sensors to provide physiotherapists with 2D visualisation of patient movement in order to improve assessment and treatment via video consults.

Aggarwal is part of a research team headed by Frank Vetere based in the Microsoft Research Centre for Social Natural User Interfaces (Social NUI) at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

Working with physiotherapist Mark Bradford from the Royal Children’s Hospital, also in Melbourne, Aggarwal observed current video consults when treating patients with lower limb conditions such as foot fractures, and others requiring extended therapy due to chronic pain. 

She found that physiotherapists are not able to ascertain from observation via video how their patients were orienting their feet, where they were placing their body weight, and what their range of movement was.

The patients had often lost the muscle memory that let them complete simple movements, such as lifting and re-placing their feet. They were also often immobilised due to injury and pain, or lived in remote areas, making travel to treatment centres difficult. 

Aggarwal found that although physiotherapists are becoming more dependent on video consultations to treat such patients, there is a lack of advanced technology that might help them visualise patient movement, and which could help patients understand how they need to alter their movement in order to improve their condition.

This led her to conceptualise and develop the smart socks in collaboration with Thuong Hoang from Australia’s Deakin University. 

“Socks have benefits over shoes and pressure mats because socks can be worn when patients have swollen feet,” she explains. “And, being mobile, socks support monitoring of a wide variety of exercises.” 

She tested out SoPhy with three patients and found that it increased the physiotherapists’ ability to deduce the ways they jumped, stepped or squatted, and how to tweak these movements in order to improve health outcomes. 

This clarity was possible because of three pressure sensors embedded in the socks — on the heel and the balls of the feet — together with a single movement sensor attached on the bridge of the foot. 

The web interface, using software developed with colleague Weiyi Zhang, relayed this information back to the therapist in real-time, allowing for a novel visualisation. It also increased the therapist’s confidence in diagnosis and management. 

All this technology needs to work is a high-speed internet connection and two computer screens – one for the patient and physiotherapist to view each other via video call and the other for the web interface that displays the data captured by the socks.

For her innovation, Aggarwal won the Victorian Fresh Science award, part of a national program that celebrates the achievements of early-career researchers and provides them with a platform to share their work.

Given the high price of the socks, she is open to companies mass-producing them to make them more accessible. She envisions this technology could be applied in improving mobility in patients undergoing rehabilitation for fractures, strokes and sports injuries to help improve the quality of video and face-to-face consultations.

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