Each day, the physical capabilities that technology gives us is incredible, and we're not just talking about texting friends at lightening pace, or the ability to see our energy consumption in real time. We're talking about the abilities given to us by new tech in the health industry, either to supplement or restore disabilities experienced by people across the globe.
Technology is giving us wonderful options for those of us with physical limitations. From the blind to the deaf, from amputees to burn victims, gadgets are creating a whole new realm of abilities.
Here are eight extraordinary technologies that hold promise for an easier life.
1. The EyewriterThe Eyewriter is an outstanding invention for people unable to use their limbs. It is a set of glasses that can detect where a person's eyes are looking, allow them to literally draw with their eyes. Created for people diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the designers' goal for the Eyewriter project is to develop the most simple and inexpensive eye-tracking headset possible and open source the software so that ALS patients around the world can create art and images on their own.
2. The Luke ArmNamed as a Star Wars head nod to Luke Skywalker, the Luke arm is one of the most advanced prosthetic arms ever created. DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, awarded $18 million in funding to Dean Kamen in 2005 to bring prosthetics into the 21st century, and boy did he. The Luke Arm is the first bionic upper limb to provide 18 degrees of freedom, a step up from its ancestors that only offer 3 degrees of freedom. It can be controlled by wiring the device to muscles or nerves, or with a foot pedal. It even has a tactile feedback sensor in the hand allowing the wearer to sense what kind of pressure they're putting into their grip. Here is a video of Kamen showing off the arm earlier this year.
Kamen is an impressive inventor, coming up with several inventions intended to improve people's lives, from this Luke Arm to a water purifier that runs off of cow dung for people in developing nations. Check out more about Dean Kamen on Planet Green.
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3. A Dozen Different LegsFor amputees who have lost their legs, simply finding a prosthetic leg that allows them to move comfortably and freely can be a challenge. But what if you want to run in a marathon, or have legs that look natural for a formal event? Athlete, fashion model and activist Aimee Mullins has helped bring the possibilities for amputees to new heights. She shows how prosthetic leg design can transform the body into everything from a work of art to a super athlete, or simply help a person easily blend in to a social scene. Here is Aimee during a TED talk on the possibilities held within designing high tech prosthesis.
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4. Solar Powered Hearing AidsHearing aids are helpful for the hard of hearing but they're very expensive, especially when it comes to the batteries. For people with little money to spare or limited access to replacement batteries, hearing aids are impractical. That's why Howard Weinstein created the Solar Ear, a $100 hearing aid with a solar powered battery that lasts as long as three years. Weinstein is hoping to chip away at the gap between the 600 million people who have hearing loss and the mere 8 million people who can afford a hearing aid.
On top of providing the gift of sound to those who might otherwise go without assistance, the Solar Ear project extends help far into the deaf community through employment opportunities. All of the employees working on Solar Ear devices are deaf.
The project is currently in Brazil, Botswana, West Bank Palestine, and will expand to Mexico, China, India, Canada during 2010.
5. Regrowing Stereocilia - The Hairs that Help You HearStereocilia, or the tiny hairs inside our ears, are an integral part of the hearing system. But overexposure to noise - such as experienced in music concerts or blasting tunes from an iPod - can permanently damage them, degrading a person's hearing over time. Researchers at Stanford, however, have hit a breakthrough in growing hair-like cells that function just like those in our ears. This could mean solutions for damaged hearing.
The research is still about a decade away from offering a solution that can be used in humans, but the potential is there for helping to restore hearing to those with noise-induced hearing loss.
6. Liquid-Filled Eye GlassesSometimes low tech is far more effective than elaborate gadgets. Such is the case with Josh Silver's eyeglasses that adjust to the wearer's correct prescription simply with liquid. More or less liquid is added to the lens until the prescription is just right for the wearer. The inexpensive glasses address an important need of more than one billion people in developing nations worldwide who lack access to eyecare. Here is Josh Silver demonstrating how the glasses work and the impact they can have on people, from improving their productivity to their quality of life.
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7. Printing New Skin Directly onto WoundsSkin is an organ that protects our bodies from infection, and for burn victims, it's the loss of that protective barrier that is the biggest threat. Skin grafts - surgically moving healthy skin from one part of the body to the burned area - is one way of aiding recovery. But what if new skin could be created in an instant, sprayed on like a printer sprays ink onto a paper? Turns out, we can do that.
Researchers at Wake Forest University have created a device that can spray new skin cells onto burn victims, supplanting skin grafts as the standard treatment. The device can be wheeled directly over a patient in a hospital bed, where a laser takes a reading of the wound's shape and size, and the precise amount of skin cells is applied exactly where they're needed.
"We literally print the cells directly onto the wound," said student Kyle Binder, who helped design the device. "We can put specific cells where they need to go."
The device still needs to undergo testing by the FDA for approved use on humans, but it has proven to be effective on mice.