AT&T scientist develops 'smart shoes' for seniors

Approximately one-third of all falls taken by seniors require medical treatment, and 10 percent eventually lead to death.

Those statistics are spurring Robert Miller to develop a “smart shoe” that would help healthcare providers detect problems with balance and walking and alert seniors before they fall. And it’s this kind of technology that is putting the telemedicine industry on healthcare’s horizon.

Miller, with AT&T Labs Research in Garrison Center, N.J., is one of more than 2,000 attendees at this week’s American Telemedicine Association 15th Annual International Meeting and Exposition, being held in San Antonio, Texas. His device, a specialized shoe insole fitted with a secure AT&T broadband connection, is being tested at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, in conjunction with a New York-based startup called 24Eight.

According to Miller, 24Eight developed the underlying technology for videogames such as the popular “Dance Dance Fever,” which includes a footpad that keeps tracks of a dancer’s foot position. Miller’s micro-electrical mechanical systems – or MEMS – include an array of linear pressure sensors that determine balance and acceleration. When those sensors detect motion or instability that could signal a potential fall, a signal is sent to a caregiver or even directly to the patient.

“We can almost infallibly detect falls,” Miller said.

Miller, who said he spent a considerable amount of time refining the sensors so they fit comfortably into the sole of a shoe – he didn’t want the device to cause the falls he’s trying to prevent – sees his device as part of the new wave of “medical jewelry.” He sees the market growing for small devices implanted into clothing or accessories that can help individuals and their healthcare providers monitor everything from balance to blood-glucose levels to heartbeats to blood pressure.

“This is the leading edge of healthcare technology,” he said. “Once this becomes accepted, it creates a degree of comfort, a sort of mobility solution that can be done without thought. It becomes chic.”