Technology from startup Kinemo empowers people with limited mobility
For people with an advanced form of paralysis like tetraplegia, simple acts of control – like pressing a button or holding a door open – are difficult if not impossible.
Kinemo, a startup out of Georgia Tech, has a potentially revolutionary solution: a wearable controller that uses a person’s limited body motion to fully control devices.
Comprised of small, inconspicuous sensors and a pendant “hub” worn around the neck, the controller allows those with paralysis to not only operate a power wheelchair, but also use a smartphone, laptop or other devices without the help of a caretaker.
A few sensors adhered to the user’s body capture facial expressions and other movements; the hub converts each movement into a desired action. A tilt of the head can tell a wheelchair to accelerate. A raise of the eyebrows can trigger the brakes. An opening of the jaw can activate the screen of a smartphone, scroll, even drag-and-drop.
“Given that many smart devices, such as a thermostat or a lamp, can be controlled by a phone or tablet, the Kinemo system delivers far more control over a person’s environment – just by facilitating the control of the mobile device,” says Nordine Sebkhi, who engineered the system with colleague Arpan Bhavsar.
Each user can configure the controller to suit personal preferences and accommodate unique limitations in mobility. A person who can move one arm, for instance, can configure the hub to read the movements of fingers, wrist and elbow as specified commands.
Currently, alternative controllers for power wheelchairs, such as physical buttons arrayed around the head and pressed by craning the neck, are highly limited. As Sebkhi notes, “the industry is just tweaking things a little bit, adding a little bit of improvement, but nothing really new compared to what you find in the consumer electronics sector.”
He adds that Medicare reimbursement is believed to be one reason for the lack of innovation. The coverage for controller devices has not been updated in decades, and the program covers the cost of an alternative controller just once every five years. These restrictions may have disincentivized the development of new solutions.
“Kinemo, however, is part of a recent wave of new tech startups in this market,” Sebkhi says, “so we hope innovation will help drive a change in Medicare coverage and remove barriers for people living with a mobility disability.”
An advantage to Kinemo’s wearable controller is its staying power – it doesn’t need to be replaced nearly as often as existing controllers. That’s because the controls can be reconfigured endlessly according to a user’s changing mobility or preferences.
“You can think of it as many to one, back to many,” Bhavsar explains. The device interprets the many subtle movements of the human body and organizes them into simple commands that go to one hub. While a single gesture or movement creates one outcome, a sequence of them can bring many different actions — navigating a city, writing an email, surfing the web or calling a friend.
Three years ago, Sebkhi and Bhavsar worked in the same Georgia Tech lab on another motion tracking device already in development. As their research progressed, they visited the Brooks Rehabilitation Center in Florida, one of the leading providers of rehabilitative care. After meeting the patients whose lives the system would improve, the two realized that applying their findings to a new alternative controller would be a major step forward.
With the support of their research advisor, Omer Inan, the two researchers ventured out on their own, developing a new prototype and working toward the formation of Kinemo. For early evaluation of the controller, they approached Shepherd Center in Atlanta, one of the nation’s top hospitals for world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain.
Shepherd’s research branch arranged for six patients with limited mobility to wear the Kinemo controller. Each was asked to use facial gestures and head movements to perform a series of tasks on a smart phone – opening a web browser and clicking a video, for example, or launching a smart home app and turning on a wireless lamp.
“Shepherd was great to work with,” Sebkhi says, “because they have a team dedicated to usability research. We trained a leader from this team, and she worked with the study participants on learning to use the system.” After the patients tried out the Kinemo controller, Bhavsar and Sebkhi gathered quantitative and qualitative data, which they’re now using to refine the controller.
Beyond rehabilitative devices, the Kinemo motion-tracking controller has several other potential applications. The most obvious is virtual reality, but Sebkhi notes that “we started with the rehabilitation field because it’s where we see the greatest need. We wanted to develop something that will have an impact on people's lives.”
As of fall 2023, Kinemo had begun refining the functional prototype into a sellable product and was working to secure more outside investment, with one piece potentially coming in the form of a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant. The company also has the advantage of developing all aspects of design in-house – embracing a degree of agility that it aims to provide the people who need it most.