Graphic designer Emma Lawton was 29 when doctors diagnosed her with early-onset Parkinson’s disease–and the tremors the disease caused in her hand meant that she could no longer draw a straight line, let alone sketch more complicated designs.
A new watch-like device has changed that: Strapped on Lawton’s wrist, it counteracts the tremors through vibration.
Designer Haiyan Zhang created the technology as part of a new BBC documentary series called The Big Fix that pairs “fixers” with problems to solve. Zhang was presented with several potential people to help, and Lawton’s challenge–as a fellow designer–resonated.
“The effects of the disease were already taking away her ability to do the job she loves,” Zhang says. “I really wanted to help, but I didn’t know if I would be able to.”
Over several months, she worked with a team to experiment with various approaches. The final solution is somewhat similar to the technology used in Liftware, a spoon that also steadies a shaking hand by measuring movement and countering that with opposing vibration.
“There’s a lot of research being done into Parkinson’s, and tremors are the least well understood of the disease’s various symptoms,” says Zhang. “The working theory is that there is a feedback loop between the brain and the hand where the tremor is happening–the brain is continuously sensing the tremor sensation and possibly amplifying the signal to correct for it. The watch scrambles the tremor sensation through vibration–sort of like injecting white noise into the feedback loop to disrupt it.”
Lawton says the watch–named the “Emmawatch” after her–has changed her life. “It’s made me feel like I’m in control of my future again,” she says. “I had started planning alternative career paths for myself because I knew my future as a designer would be more difficult if I couldn’t write or sketch, but I would have hated to have to give up the one thing I’ve worked for 10 years to become skilled at to do something else. The Emmawatch makes me feel like anything is possible.”
Though the watch works well for Lawton, because the symptoms of Parkinson’s vary between individuals, Zhang will have to test the device more before knowing how widely it can help. The team is currently exploring how they might take the project forward.
“Since the show aired, both Emma and I have been inundated with hundreds of tweets, messages, emails from people whose lives have been touched by Parkinson’s, asking about the availability of the watch for themselves or their loved ones,” Zhang says. “It’s really inspired me to think about the future of this device and how we can help more people.”