‘Magic carpet’ constructed of plastic optical fibers could help prevent falls

Sept. 4, 2012
Using plastic optical fibers (POFs) and a tomographic imaging technique, scientists at the University of Manchester in England have developed a ‘magic carpet’ able to immediately detect when someone has fallen, and can help to predict mobility problems.

Using plastic optical fibers (POFs) and a tomographic imaging technique, scientists at the University of Manchester in England have developed a ‘magic carpet’ able to immediately detect when someone has fallen, and can help to predict mobility problems. The technology could be used to fit smart carpets in care homes or hospital wards, as well as be fit in people’s homes if necessary. Physiotherapists could also use the carpet to map changes and improvements in a person’s gait.

With the smart carpet, tiny electronics at the edges act as sensors and relay signals to a computer. These signals can then be analyzed to show the image of the footprint and identify gradual changes in walking behavior or a sudden incident such as a fall or trip. They can also show a steady deterioration or change in walking habits, possibly predicting a dramatic episode such as a fall.

The interdisciplinary team, from three academic Schools and the Photon Science Institute at The University of Manchester, used a tomographic imaging technique that maps 2D images by using light propagating under the surface of the smart carpet.

The researchers, led by Dr. Patricia Scully from the University of Manchester’s Photon Science Institute, believe their carpet could be vital not only for helping people in the immediate aftermath of a fall, but also in identifying subtle changes in people’s walking habits that might not be spotted by a caregiver.

The carpet is able to perform biomechanical to chemical sensing of body fluids, enabling holistic sensing to provide an environment that detects and responds to changes in patient condition, explains Scully. What's more, it can be retrofitted at low cost to allow living space to adapt as the occupiers’ needs evolve—particularly relevant with an aging population and for those with long-term disabilities—and incorporated non-intrusively into any living space or furniture surface such as a mattress or wall that a patient interacts with, she adds.

"Older people will benefit from exercises to improve balance and muscle strength in the legs," says Professor Chris Todd. "So being able to identify changes in people's walking patterns and gait in the natural environment, such as in a corridor in a nursing home, could really help us identity problems earlier on."

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