How a new Microsoft prototype has given a woman with Parkinson's a crucial ability

Daniel Howley

Microsoft’s (MSFT) Build developers conference this week is showcasing the company’s latest offerings for developers. And while much of that can go right over consumers’ heads, the company provided at least one instance of how its technology can change people’s lives.

U.K. native Emma Lawton was 29 years old when she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.  A progressive disorder of the nervous system, Parkinson’s is commonly recognized by its tendency to cause tremors in those with the disease.

As a creative director, Lawton, now 33, wanted to outline her ideas on paper, but her Parkinson’s kept her from being able to even draw a straight line.

“I don’t have to be hands-on,” Lawton explained, “but it’s really important for me to be able to draw and write and communicate my ideas to clients.”

That’s where Haiyan Zhang comes in. The innovation director of Microsoft Research in Cambridge, Zhang was tasked with helping Lawton regain her ability to write and draw again as part of a BBC documentary called “The Big Life Fix.”

“I went in not really knowing a lot about Parkinson’s, and sort of learned on the fly, read a lot of academic papers into this disease, and then, working with some collaborators in the lab, we developed a lot of prototypes,” Zhang explained.

The result of their research is a bracelet that uses Microsoft’s machine learning technology to help counteract the impact of Lawton’s tremors on her hand. Using tiny motors that send pulses through her wrist, the bracelet has given Lawton the ability to draw again.

“It’s beyond anything I can ever express properly in words,” she said. “And I was starting to think, I’m going to have to do something else, because you can’t be a creative director and not sketch or do things that you’d expect other people to do, it feels sort of wrong.

“So now I have basically control over my own future, which is a massive deal. But also simply being able to write my name is an amazing thing, I take great pride in it. It’s really, really exciting,” Lawton added.

According to Zhang, Lawton’s bracelet wirelessly communicates with a tablet app that Lawton can program to vibrate in specific patterns that interfere with her tremors.

As Microsoft tells it, the system uses a combination of sensors and AI techniques that can potentially detect and monitor tremors, stiffness and instability in a user.

When a symptom is identified, the company says it’s possible to develop technology and devices that help humans manage their symptoms. AI is used to classify the sensor information and elicit real-time responses on small devices like wearables.

While Zhang says that Microsoft isn’t sure why the bracelet works quite yet, she explained that it could be short-circuiting Lawton’s perception of her tremors so her brain doesn’t actively fight them.

Zhang said she and Microsoft are currently using the device, which they have appropriately dubbed “Emma” to conduct research into whether it can help other Parkinson’s patients.

Lawton’s bracelet isn’t a cure-all for Parkinson’s. The disease has a variety of different effects on people’s lives. While Lawton’s wearable helps here, it might not help other individuals.

What’s more, the Emma is only able to control tremors in Lawton’s hand, so she continues to need medication to help mitigate the impact of the disease on the rest of her body.

Still, the hope is that with time, Microsoft can use the Emma to reduce the impact of the disease on sufferers and help restore a semblance of normalcy to their lives.

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Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.