Taking back control: new 3D printed bracelet empowers the hand-impaired to play video games

Researchers at the University of Sydney have developed a 3D printed sensor bracelet that allows those with hand impairments to more easily use computers and play video games. 

By detecting vibrations in users’ wrists as they move their fingers, the wearable is said to be capable of picking up inputs, before relaying these to a machine learning (ML) program that converts them into computational commands. Once they’ve perfected this process, the team intends to make the bracelet open-source, with the aim of improving smart device access for disabled people across the world.

“Accessibility shouldn’t come at a huge cost,” explains Stephen Lin, the undergraduate honours student who led the project. “Our mission is to provide an affordable, easy-to-use solution to assist people around the world who are living with disability. We want this technology to be available to anyone who needs it, which is why we plan to release it publicly without Intellectual Property (IP).” 

The University of Sydney's 3D printed sensor bracelet. Photo via the University of Sydney.
The University of Sydney’s 3D printed sensor bracelet. Photo via the University of Sydney.

The inequality of tech accessibility 

People with disabilities such as cerebral palsy often suffer from muscle stiffness and variations in muscle tone, which leave them vulnerable to jerky involuntary movements or give them exaggerated reflexes. This, according to the University of Sydney team, causes 50% of those living with the condition to struggle to speak, and as many as two-thirds to have difficulty moving one or both arms. 

Given the intricacy of the inputs now required to operate computers, mobile phones and gaming pads, the hand-impaired are therefore faced with being frozen out of the modern world. To combat this, Professor Nadia Badawi, who supervised Lin on the bracelet project, says that the rapid development of advanced assistive technologies is vital, but they must be attainable enough to meet demand. 

“We know that assistive technology holds the key to a brighter future for many children with cerebral palsy and similar disabilities, with the potential to transform communication, mobility and participation in society,” adds Badawi. “Cerebral palsy is the most common physical disability in childhood globally, meaning it is vital that these tech advancements are accessible, customisable and as widely available as possible.”

PhD student Stephen Lin using the 3D printed bracelet to play a video game.
PhD student Stephen Lin using the 3D printed bracelet to play a video game. Photo via the University of Sydney.

Taking back control with 3D printing 

Lin and Badawi’s solution to the technological barriers faced by hand impairment sufferers takes the shape of a unique, sensor-packed bracelet. 3D printed using an everyday Formlabs system, the device is designed to pick up subtle finger movements via vibrations in the carpal tunnel, a wrist area that contains the tendons which control the hand. 

Once these inputs have been detected, they can be sent via bluetooth to a program the researchers have designed, which is capable of identifying patterns and communicating them with a given device. As this process is carried out instantaneously, the bracelet enables wearers to input the commands needed to play games, something that ordinarily requires using a handheld controller. 

At present, the team deploys an ML algorithm on a desktop PC to interpret the movements of bracelet users, which vary from person to person. However, the researchers ultimately aim to condense their software into a free mobile app and make their sensor bracelets open-source, an approach that Badawi says could help kids with cerebral palsy better “play, learn and express themselves.”

The project is not just backed by the Australian government and Cerebral Palsy Alliance, but is being carried out in partnership with the MJF Charitable Foundation as well. According to Gopi Kitnasamy, the non-profit’s Head of Rehabilitation Services, whose son also has cerebral palsy, the bracelet has huge potential in “low-to-middle income countries” where assistive device access is a “major issue.” 

“My 23-year-old son loves watching car and bike races and playing video games,” explains Kitnasamy. “As he has a lot of dyskinetic (involuntary) movements, he finds it difficult to use joysticks or controllers, so he ends up just watching as we play for him. We have long dreamt of finding a way for him to fully play the game himself.”

“I was so thrilled and excited to learn about the researchers’ sensor bracelet, which appears promising in terms of functionality and affordability,” he added. “We hope the research progresses, not only to give people like my son access to video games, but also to improve rehabilitative services and to make the impossible possible.”

The MJF Charitable Foundation's Gopi Kitnasamy and his son. Photo via the University of Sydney.
The MJF Charitable Foundation’s Gopi Kitnasamy and his son. Photo via the University of Sydney.

Additive manufacturing assistive devices

While the Sydney team’s novel bracelet no doubt meets a pressing need for new technologies that help the disabled, it’s far from the first device to realize this through the use of 3D printing. At the University of Antwerp, for instance, one of its students, Mano Balliu, has developed an award-winning 3D printed orthosis that’s able to combat the effects of hypertonia in children with cerebral palsy.

Elsewhere, the likes of B9Creations has partnered with social services organization Black Hills Works, with the aim of 3D printing custom assistive devices for over 600 disabled individuals. As part of their collaboration, the firms have agreed to produce everything from eating utensils and wearable medical devices to wheelchair grips, all of which are designed to grant their users greater independence. 

In the past, the Cerebra Innovation Centre (CIC) has also utilized the technology to 3D print a custom horse riding helmet for a young, disabled dressage riding enthusiast. Working with the Assistive Technologies Innovation Centre (ATiC), the CIC was reportedly able to develop a 3D model from scans, before deploying additive manufacturing to create molds that perfectly fitted the child’s head.

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Featured image shows PhD student Stephen Lin using the 3D printed bracelet to play a video game. Photo via the University of Sydney.