Hope for Parkinson’s patients comes in an unexpected form — a watch. Microsoft unveiled new technology that can quiet the tremors that often plague people with Parkinson’s disease.
In the simple form of a watch, this technology allowed one women to write legibly for the first time in years. The watch was inscribed with her name, “Emma,” which has become the official name of the product: Emma Watch. Created by developers Haiyan Zhang and Nicolas Villa, the watch was presented at Build 2017 in Seattle on May 16.
Emma Lawton, the first recipient of the Emma Watch, is a graphic designer in London, where Zhang is based in the Microsoft Corporation. Their story is documented in an upcoming documentary called The Big Life Fix, which will be airing on BBC. Lawton’s story of losing her ability to draw the lines and letters that once earned her a living inspired Zhang to produce this prototype watch, of which there is only one in the world.
Zhang spent months researching Parkinson’s disease in order to identify the root of the tremors and create a solution. The Emma Watch “vibrates in a distinctive pattern to disrupt the feedback loop between brain and hand” in order to quell the shakiness.
“Once these symptoms can be identified and measured, it’s possible to develop technology and devices that help humans manage their symptoms,” said the Microsoft team. “AI is used to classify the sensor information and elicit real-time responses on small devices like wearables.”
While Lawton does admit that some shaking still occurs with the watch, she is in awe of the control she now has over her hands.
“To be able to write your name is a basic human right,” Lawton says later. “To be able to do it and do it neatly is really special to me now. It’s empowering. It made me feel that I could do anything.”
Over 10 million people are affected by Parkinson’s disease. It diminishes a person’s ability to perform basic motor functions due to a disruption in part of the brain call the substantia nigra. In most cases, Parkinson’s patients are usually over the age of 50. However, in rarer cases like Lawton’s, early onset can occur. These Early Onset Parkinson’s diagnoses make up 4 percent of the worldwide population of Parkinson’s sufferers.
Due to the success of the first prototype, Zhang and the team at Microsoft are optimistic about the technology and the hope that it provides for patients who have not seen any new treatments for some time. Zhang is now working with a team of neuroscientists in order to streamline and optimize the technology. Initial trials are being launched shortly to test the Emma Watch on a larger scale.
While Parkinson’s remains uncured, the watch provides a way for those living with this disease to control their movements and feel empowered.
“Its technology has the potential to help Parkinson’s patients manage symptoms that impede regular functions,” said a representative at Microsoft. “The goal of further research is to determine whether Emma Watch could help other people with similar Parkinson’s symptoms.”