Smart socks lead the way

The humble sock has undergone some major upgrades as ‘wearable technology’ in the healthcare sector and has emerged as an innovative device used to treat lower limb injuries, foot ulcers and circulatory issues

University of Melbourne PhD student Deepti Aggarwal has developed socks into a tool to aid physiotherapists in the treatment of patients via video consultation.

The socks — known as ‘SoPhy’ — are fitted with sensors to provide data on weight distribution and range of movement, which physiotherapists can assess in real time to provide more comprehensive feedback to patients.

Ms Aggarwal said video consultations were becoming increasingly relied upon for rural and remote patients, however problems arose due to the need to convey subtle information.

“Physiotherapy’s all about movement, so the immediate question that I was wondering was how can physiotherapists see all sorts of movement over video when they see the patients on a 2D screen,” she said.

SoPhy are designed to bridge this gap by providing the information needed.

The news of this development comes shortly after US company Siren launched its own version of the ‘smart sock’ aimed at helping prevent diabetic foot ulcers.

The Siren Sock is made of Neurofabric, which embeds sensors directly into the fabric and is complete with wireless connectivity and a Siren app, allowing for an “easy-to-use consumer [solution]”.

Diabetics are susceptible to foot injuries and sores, due to complications of the disease such as poor circulation and nerve damage, and this can lead to infection and even amputation if left untreated.

Siren co-founder and chief executive Ran Ma began development of the ‘smart sock’ to address this issue through temperature monitoring, to detect early signs of inflammation.

Ms Aggarwal stressed a need for thorough consideration of professional research and opinion as more wearable data collectors, like socks, emerge in the medical field.

“There are many benefits that wearable technologies offer, but we need to understand what kind of data they are giving and how can we make sense of that data,” she said.

“The main question here would be ‘how are you presenting this data that was captured by this sensor?’.

“Anything can become a wearable technology but whether useful or not that’s a big question.”

Founder and chief executive of Israeli medical device start-up ElastiMed Omer Zelka believes the current path of wearable technology is still evolving.

“The field of wearable technology is currently only passive, whether it’s by measuring a user’s pulse, temperature etcetera,” he said.

“The next step in the evolution of wearables has to be made by adding an active component.”

ElastiMed’s compression device, set to be released mid-2019, uses this active approach with Electro Active Polymers.

EAP technology, which changes shape and size in response to electric pulses, was further developed by Mr Zelka into more workable ‘smart materials’.

“I came across the technology a while ago as a personal interest. That interest became a hobby, which in time turned into an obsession, to a point that I’ve built an improvised laboratory at home that looked like a bad episode of Breaking Bad,” Mr Zelka said.

In the company’s first application of smart materials it developed a wrap-around bandage to stimulate circulation through rhythmic contractions, designed for greater comfort and convenience than existing compression methods.

Mr Zelka said not only would the product be an effective treatment for medical conditions such as lymphedema and venous diseases, but also could be used as part of therapy for elite athletes and for general individual wellness to relieve tired legs.

“The key benefit in smart materials is that they are low cost, with high energy efficiency. That means they don’t generate any heat and are completely quiet,” he said.

“These capabilities create an enormous potential in wearables, robotics, energy harvesting, aviation and more.

“In our pipeline we have a couple of future applications already in mind, starting from compression for different body parts, rehabilitation and robotics.”