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Self-stabilizing 'Smart' Utensils Counteract Hand Tremors


Imagine lifting a spoon to your mouth, but your shaking hand causes the food to spill before you can taste it. Activities of daily life pose a particular challenge for people with limited mobility due to spinal cord injuries, strokes or tremor-causing diseases such as Huntington's or Parkinson's.

One company is out to change this frustrating scenario. Liftware, a startup purchased by Google in 2014 and integrated into the company's Verily Life Sciences division, introduced the Steady electronic spoon in 2013. The Steady spoon uses a microchip and sensors to detect the force and direction of a hand tremor, then moves in the opposite direction to counteract the shaking. The spoon attachment can be interchanged with a fork or a soup spoon.

Liftware's newest addition is the Liftware Level. The company recruited people with limited mobility and their families, and used their input to test and refine the robotic Liftware Level spoon. As a result, the bot-spoon has an electronic handle that recognizes the position the hand is in and the tip of the handle automatically moves to keep the spoon level and counteract shaking as it is raised to the mouth. (Check it out in action in Liftware's video above.) The rechargeable utensil also comes with fork and soup spoon attachments.

The idea was developed by Anupam Pathak, whose Ph.D. work at the University of Michigan focused on helping stabilize the rifle barrels of soldiers who had developed shaking due to trauma. Pathak later applied the idea to a device — the Steady spoon — to help the approximately 10 million Americans with a neurological condition that causes involuntary shaking.

Unlike other large and bulky assistive feeding devices that attempt to control or cancel hand movement, Pathak's Liftware Level and Steady spoons — which are about the size of an electronic toothbrush — use active cancellation hardware. In other words, the bowl of the spoon doesn't move, even when the handle is moving.

Although one of these adjustable utensils cost about $200, the ability to dine without struggle and frustration could be priceless to its users.