Thumb Extension for Smart Phones

We admit we were tempted to laugh at this clever invention, but then we realized it just might be very useful for seniors suffering from arthritis—or short fingers.

This is a real thing, according to no less than the Wall Street Journal.

Yes, this is a real thing.

We promise we’re not making this up! From gadget-loving Japan comes “Yubi Nobiiru” (finger growth), a prosthesis that looks like a long silicone thimble that you wear over your thumb to extend its reach across large cell phone screens. It’s supposed to be discretely “flesh-toned,” an accurate description if you happen to be a light-orange-skinned android.

What makes it real—and makes it work—is an embedded conductor that works on the principle of capacitance (charges across an electrical field). Our fingers themselves have slight electric charges, which is how they are able to activate the electronics in cell phones and other touchscreen devices. (For details on how this works, see this excellent illustrated overview from The Washington Post.)

Given the super-heroine graphics and the bombastic music in the video, you may find this hard to take seriously, but it’s worth thinking about where engineers could go with artificial skin capacitance. As we age, touch sensitivity can decrease while painful ailments in the hands can increase, so as silly as the Yubi Nobiiru seems, it could be the first of a new class of devices that enable seniors to function in an increasingly touchscreen world.

If you can read Japanese, you can order your own Yubi Nobiiru here.




Simple Tech for Simple Tasks

Before there were carebots, exoskeletons and other expensive types of assistive technology, there were gadgets to help people open jars, pull up zippers and other mundane tasks that become more challenging with age. In this video,  Tina Ross of  Virginia’s Simple Comforts demonstrates a range of such devices, which should be available through local retailers or by ordering online.



Honey, did you forget the Smart Phone?

An insight into the interactions of senior adults and technology comes from a friend whose mother has Alzheimer’s. She cannot remember that the chocolate-bar shaped thing her son carries around is a phone. It remains utterly novel and incomprehensible, especially because it doesn’t have a physical, numeric keypad. The idea of texting is science fiction to her—phones are for talking, but this “phone” doesn’t seem to have a mouth- or ear-piece.

Yet, what it does resemble is a pad of paper. And since this particular phone is a Samsung Galaxy Note, it can perform like one. Thus, with her son’s help, she happily writes notes on it, which he sends off as texts to his father. Now, even when he’s outside or in another part of the house, she can “converse” easily with her husband.

It’s a wonderful piece of enabling technology for both of them, since her condition has left her almost voiceless, and he suffers from age-related hearing loss. Nevertheless, there has been some pushback. Unfortunately for my friend’s father, “Sorry, honey, I forgot to put in my hearing aid,” no longer works as an excuse.


Offline Memory Aids?

Game developer Martin Kenwright, who sold his company Evolution Studios to Sony in 2007, is doing what serial entrepreneurs do: starting a new company. Called Starship Group, he says it will focus on e-health, children’s gaming, and lifestyle products, according to an interview Kenwright gave to the Liverpool Echo.

We’re interested in what he calls, “Forget-Me-Not,” and describes as a “wearable second brain” that will assist people with dementia and other memory problems. He gives no other details, except to claim, “We need the use of low-energy chipsets in the wearables sector to increase massively before the true power of Forget-Me-Not can be fully realised.”

Our colleague Alfred Poor has commented on the chips. What little else we can glean comes from this quote: “In five years, I fully expect memory aids to be as ubiquitous as hearing aids,” said Mr Kenwright.

So will the form factor be something on the order of a Bluetooth headset? Perhaps like a political staffer, it will prompt you with the name of the person whose hand you’re shaking. We wonder as we often do, to what extent such dedicated hardware is going to be outmoded by apps for cell phones, which are already evolving into wearable devices.

For example, IPhone users can download Cue You, which its 62-year-old co-creator Jane Birdwell describes as, “a powerful communication and monitoring tool that helps to support the independence of individuals with memory loss, developmental disabilities and traumatic brain injury.” By the time Forget-Me-Not comes to market, could it already be outmoded by something like Cue You on an iWatch, in the same way that eReaders may be replaced by apps on cell phones?

But then, maybe our cynicism about dedicated devices goes back to the CueCat. Now there’s a memory challenge, kids.


Yes, this was a breakthrough technology.

Happy Birthday, Vint Cerf

Vint Cerf, one of the pioneers of the Internet, turns 71 today.

Cerf shares his birthday with Alan Turing, the British mathematician who cracked the German’s Enigma code. The ACM named its highest award for him, which Cerf received in 2004.

In their mutual honor, we recommend this essay on Turing that Cerf wrote on what would have been Turing’s 100th birthday.


What was that about “technophobic” seniors?

Cerf is currently the Chief Internet Evangelist for Google.







Physicists Cure Arthritis! (Er, maybe not)

We’re always amused by academic press releases that promote breakthroughs for human health that may be decades away from practical implementation. On behalf of our fellow arthritis sufferers, we’ll let this cartilage replacement claim slide because of its technical bravura.

A team of physicists in the United Kingdom is experimenting with “acoustic tweezers,” which use ultrasonic waves to manipulate cells and other microscopic objects. In one of those give-us-more-funding scenarios, the release from the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) envisions:

“Using the crafted sound fields, cartilage cells taken from a patient’s knee can be levitated for weeks in a nutrient-rich fluid. This means the nutrients can reach every part of the culture’s surface and, combined with the stimulation provided by the ultrasound, enables the cells to grow and to form better implant tissue than when cultured on a glass petri dish. By holding the cells in the required position firmly but gently, the tweezers can also mould the growing tissue into exactly the right form so that the implant is truly fit-for-purpose when inserted into the patient’s knee.”

5981C83F-5B06-492F-A608A6B303BA7A64Back in current reality, members of the team have used the tweezers to line up cells in a tartan pattern, which is a seriously nifty proof-of-concept.

Micromanipulation or “tweezing” with sound or light is already a familiar technique for physicists.  Decades earlier, the field perfected “optical tweezers,” which use light to manipulate objects as small as a single atom. While optical tweezers require a complicated set-up with laser-equipped microscopes, the more recently developed acoustic tweezers can fit on a chip, as demonstrated earlier by a research group at Penn State.

According to one of the EPSRC team’s lead scientists, Bruce Drinkwater of Bristol University, acoustic tweezers offer an advantage because, “They have a complete absence of moving parts and can manipulate not just one or two cells (or other objects) at a time but clusters of several centimetres across – a scale that makes them very suitable for applications like tissue engineering.”

We’re glad British taxpayers are getting their money’s worth. Meanwhile, pass us the ibuprofen.

Image courtesy: University of Glasgow. 

Assistive Tech Pioneer Glimcher Dies

The field of assistive technology recently lost one of its most distinguished pioneers. Melvin J. Glimcher, who died on May 12, was one of the developers of the “Boston Arm,” the first bio-mechanical prosthetic. When it was revealed in 1968, at a time when prosthetics had barely advanced beyond peg legs, it was greeted with the same future shock amazement as the moon landing a year later.

Glimcher, whom the Marines considered “too smart” for combat, was part of a team that included researchers from MIT, Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the insurance company Liberty Mutual. According to Boston Magazine, Liberty Mutual’s interest was more fiscal than humanitarian: Developing a prosthetic that was useful, rather than merely cosmetic, beat paying long-term disability insurance.

Whatever the motive, the device became the forerunner of a new way of thinking about prosthetics that has led to today’s current laboratory research on neural implants to control prosthetic limbs and potential breakthroughs.

One way to know you’ve lived a good life is if your obituary is a great read. Glimcher’s is, and with gratitude, we highly recommend it.