A 'smart' device for stroke rehabilitation

Pamela Robles-Franco

Pamela Robles-Franco looks at the world with the eyes of an artist and the mind of an engineer. She finds the construction of things profoundly beautiful and will look at them from all angles, trying to understand how they came to be.

Her passion for building things drew the attention of the faculty of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), where Robles-Franco is an undergraduate student in civil engineering. They chose her to be the first person from her university to participate in a prestigious research exchange program with Arizona State University.

“I am very involved in my university and I do my best to bring new knowledge to my community. That is something that helped in my selection to this program,” said Robles-Franco. “I’m very proud of the opportunity to come here.”

U.S. President Barack Obama and Mexico President Enrique Pena Nieto in 2013 set the goal of increasing student exchanges through the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Initiative. The mission of program is expanding study abroad opportunities for future leaders and innovators to strengthen bi-national relations and better prepare young people for the 21st century global workforce.

Robles-Franco is among the first class of Mexican students who traveled to the U.S. this year to participate in intensive research experiences. She joined the research team in the Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing (CUbiC) at the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering to help advance the development of a device to help patients recover from stroke. CUbiC conducts research in human-centered multimedia computing focusing on assistive, rehabilitative and health care technologies.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, annually more than 795,000 people in the United States have a stroke. The goal of a stroke rehabilitation program is to help people relearn skills lost when part of the brain is affected. Physical activities include strengthening motor skills and range-of-motion therapy.

During Robles-Franco’s six-week program at ASU, she worked on improving the accessibility and usability of CUbiC’s Intelligent Stick, designed to help people rehabilitate from stroke. The Intelligent Stick is a physical “smart” object, in the form of a rod embedded with motion sensors and actuators, which are a type of motor that is responsible for moving or controlling the mechanism.

“The device is for people to use to compliment physical therapy, whereby they do their exercise program at home. The stick gives feedback through vibrations to tell them if they are doing the exercise properly,” said Robles-Franco.

The person performing the exercises plays a video game that guides his or her motions. These motions are based on the therapist’s movements, which are used by game designers to develop the program.

“For example, if the therapist did a sweeping motion that was similar to the act of rowing a paddle, we can design a river rafting/kayaking game in which the individual uses this motion to navigate the boat in-game,” said Ramin Tadayon, graduate assistant in the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering who also is working on the project.

Because each individual has a different level of motion ability, and a different program of exercise, the difficulty of the movements and the type of game will differ for each person, and will change as the therapist assigns more difficult degrees of motion throughout the duration of rehabilitation/training. The device will record the person’s motions and the therapist, after loading software being developed by the ASU team and transmitting the data from the stick, will be able to see on the computer screen the motions to determine if goals have been met.

Robles-Franco worked on redesigning CUbiC’s Intelligent Stick prototype, creating a more accessible design by accommodating varying grip sizes and strengths through adjustable rod diameters and lengths. She also investigated its materials to improve the usability of the Intelligent Stick, settling on a semi-rigid plastic, such as Polycarbonate, that is lightweight yet durable and high impact-resistant.

According to Troy McDaniel, assistant director of CUbiC, the focus for the project is neuro rehabilitation, but the technology and software could be expanded to other types of rehabilitation programs or physical activities in general.

“We are excited to have the opportunity of hosting international students to share our expertise and benefit from their presence. Pamela quickly integrated into CUbiC projects and proposed novel design solutions in our motor rehabilitation project,” said Sethuraman Panchanathan, director of CUbiC and ASU senior vice president of the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development. “We look forward to hosting many more students from this program in the future.”

Robles-Franco’s research results will soon be published at professional conferences in engineering, human-computer interaction and health care, helping her disseminate her findings to others and build her standing in the research community.

“In the CUbiC lab they make new technology that can be used to help make people’s lives better. There are no words that can describe the satisfaction one gets from helping others,” said Robles-Franco. “Back in Mexico, I hope to develop technology to support social issues. There is always something new we can do, there is always something we can help improve.”