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Siemens Corporate Technology in conjunction with the EU ACANTO (A CyberphysicAl social NeTwOrk) is developing a high-tech walker for the elderly. Called the FriWalk (for Friendly Robot Walker), the device has several functions to enhance the health and well-being of elderly people. Designed primarily for gait analysis that can yield a lot of health data, the FriWalk can also be used as an exercise motivator, a navigational assistant, and a social tool.

From a distance, the FriWalk doesn’t look different from a typical four-wheeled walker. The top-mounted tablet, depth sensors, cameras, and pressure sensitive shoe inserts may not be all that obvious to the casual observer, but they can provide a wealth of information to both researchers and the person using the walker.

Gait analysis has always been a medical diagnostic tool, but observations during an office visit have limitations. There are special walkways that measure gait, but in the medical facility they are still limited by the circumstance. According to Siemens’ Josef Birchbauer, “It creates an unnatural situation. The patient is being observed and feels like they are walking on a catwalk, which alters their normal gait pattern because naturally everyone tries to do their best. In addition, a walkway is costly and limited to a few meters in length.”

The FriWalker, on the other hand, records data while people are out and about or moving in their homes, constantly tracking and reporting. The device breaks the data down into various components including foot position, orientation, and pressure, from which the analysis can report step length, step width and gait rhythm. “We process 15 to 20 frames per second, which produces a virtual walkway on which we can see the footprints on the floor together with the corresponding pressure distribution as well as the path of motion of the feet in the air,” said Birchbauer.

The FriWalker tablet can be used by the user to record notes or data, and it can also serve as a personal trainer, recommending destinations and paths based not only on physical ability, but also on personal preferences, environmental factors, and navigational features. There’s also a theoretical social aspect. For example, the FriWalker could suggest a walk in the park with an appropriate distance and slope and let the user know about other people headed the same way or interested in the same type of walk. Along the walk, if the cameras detected a slick spot, for example, the FriWalker could alert the user in sufficient time to take another route or turn around.

Testing of the FriWalker will continue in Europe through 2018 with the hope that the team will be able to offer user-propelled personal robotic assistants that will monitor health while also encouraging exercise and social interaction.