December 1, 2007 Working with electrical engineers, a podiatrist has designed a pair of glasses that helps people with Parkinson's to walk with less difficulty. Parkinson's can cause people to freeze, or to take many small stutter steps, while striding. The glasses include LEDs and a computer chip that projects lines on a transparent screen. The lines scroll or stay still depending on the situation, acting as visual cues and making it much easier to walk safely and smoothly.
More than a million people in the U.S. have Parkinson's. It robs the body of muscle control. But now, a simple pair of new hi-tech eyeglasses could change the way Parkinson's patients live their everyday lives.
One foot in front of the other ... it used to be so simple for the retired podiatrist, before he was diagnosed with Parkinson's. As he began to lose mobility, Tom Riess had a vision, literally, of a new invention that could help Parkinson's sufferers walk with ease.
"I fall maybe 10 or 12 times a day and I have black and blue marks to show for it, but with these glasses I won't fall," Riess said.
With the help of electrical engineers, when patients look through the goggles, they see a checkerboard grid in front of them and step over the patterns. Tom likens the effect to dropping cards on the floor as markers. These new glasses use the science of optics to shine lines of light inside the lenses to form visual cues.
"We take the well known concept that physical cues may help a Parkinson's patient walk again," Yves Vaillant, an electrical engineer at Enhance Vision said.
A walk around his living room was once a rocky road for Riess, but with the glasses, it's a smooth stroll.
"One way it feels very constrained, like walking under water, and one way it feels close to what we call as normal," Riess said.
Normal for tom takes work, but tom faces every day one step at a time.
"It's important not to withdraw from the world, it's important to be as active as possible," Riess said.
BACKGROUND: A California podiatrist named Tom Riess has developed a set of augmented reality glasses that can help people suffering from Parkinson's Disease walk straight, with confidence and without drugs. Riess was stricken with the disease at the age of 33, and spent 16 years testing various devices in his garage, using himself as the main test subject. His glasses are light, portable, inexpensive, easy to manufacture, offer hands-free control, and look stylish.
HOW IT WORKS: The glasses have an array of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and a computer chip embedded in the sidebar of an otherwise typical pair of wraparound sunglasses. The LEDs produce thin, virtual horizontal lines that are projected onto a transparent screen across the wearerýs entire field of view. The lines scroll towards the wearer at an even flow, but when walking look steady. The lines disappear entirely when the user looks up. The glasses also contain mercury switches that track head movements and "choreograph" the virtual cues accordingly. A more recent version use LEDs to generate peripheral cues to not only permit normal walking, but also to help suppress the jerky, uncontrolled movements that can result from the body's attempts to process apparently irrational movement, called dyskinesia.
PARKINSON'S PROBLEMS: Many people suffering from Parkinson's disease experience progressively greater difficulty walking, a condition known as akinesia that is thought to result from depletion of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brainýs movement control centers. The most common gait problems are freezing and small little stuttering steps. Drug treatment can help alleviate this condition, but also has undesirable side effects.
HOW THE GLASSES HELP: The augmented reality glasses simulate an effect called kinesia paradoxa: the triggering of normal walking behavior in akinetic Parkinson's patients by the placement of physical obstacles at their feet. Sometimes such cues exist naturally, such as black and white tiles placed evenly on a floor. The black tiles appear as objects to avoid, or as guides, and trigger a reflex of landing the feet between the black spaces. Walking up regularly spaced objects like stairs triggers the same effect, and can "un-freeze" a person who otherwise has problems walking with a normal gait. Presenting virtual objects and abstract visual cues moving through the patientýs visual field at speeds that emulate normal walking can also achieve this effect.
The Optical Society of America contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.
Editor's Note: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.