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Olin Team Wins Prize for Smart Shoe That Helps Older Adults Detect Obstacles


Hackathons support the development of the technology of tomorrow but the spotlight is often on the ever-changing needs of the young. Several months ago, the North Hill retirement village turned that notion on its head and hosted an intergenerational hackathon. The devices developed at that event focused on improving the lives of older adults. There was a wearable hands-free flashlight, a system for helping rural residents find rides to medical appointments and a “smart box” medication reminder.

An innovative shoe that helps older adults avoid obstacles in their path took top honors at the event, which was sponsored by LeadingAge MA.

The shoe was created by a team of two Olin College students, Aidan McLaughlin and Zachary Davenport, along with Betsy Constantine and Wendell Sykes, both residents at another local retirement home, Lasell Village. Lasell’s activities director Carla Pepka and a graduate student, Mahsa Zehtabian, from the Massachusetts College of Art rounded out the team. Their invention, a shoe that they dubbed “SmartStep,” warns the wearer when obstacles are in the way. The shoe is designed to help prevent falls and injuries among the elderly and visually impaired.

As a result of their June success, the team members won an expense-paid trip to the LeadingAge Annual Meeting and Expo in New Orleans at the end of October where they presented their work in front of an audience of 5,000 and received a cash prize of $2,500. They also had the chance to show off their device to potential investors and businesses that focus on products for older adults. In addition, the team presented at the Idea Sharks Pitch competition, a Shark Tank-style challenge where competitors had 5-7 minutes to present a solution to critical challenge facing an aging population. The Smart Step team won that competition as well, netting another $250.

The shoe is the result of an intensive eight-hour session the day of the hackathon during which the team brainstormed ideas for improving older adults’ mobility, which the Lasell couple had identified as a key issue as people grow older.

“We looked at the tools and sensors provided at the hackathon and said ‘we can make this work,’” said McLaughlin.

The shoe works by means of an ultrasonic sensor placed in the front of the shoe that sends out a pulse and gets a reflection when it detects something ahead. The device is controlled by an arduino, a mini-computer McLaughlin and Davenport are working to embed in the shoe.

When the computer receives a signal that the sensor has detected an object ahead, it transmits a signal providing feedback via a gently vibrating motor positioned under wearers’ toes to let them know they should stop to avoid the obstacle.

The team, which since the hackathon has added Olin sophomore Kyle Combes, has continued to perfect the device, implementing a system that detects whether the user is shuffling their feet and doing further research on ultrasonic obstacle detection. They are working on getting all the components to fit in the shoe, and would like it eventually to be self-powered.

McLaughlin and Davenport never expected to be involved in the field of products for innovative aging, but now that they are in it, they are enthusiastic about pressing on.

“For me, I’ve been really, really excited by the potential this project has and I’ve been trying to give it a big spot in my mind with all the other things I have to consider,” says Davenport, a sophomore. “I never expected to be working in this field, but thinking of all that could come out of this is really exciting.”

McLaughlin, who graduates this semester, is particularly interested in the possibility of longer-term collaborations in which researchers working on various issues in aging are matched up with students to help solve specific problems.

“That’s probably the most exciting thing to me—it’s not just a shoe, but this long-term institutions piece that could be really exciting,” said McLaughlin. “So even if the shoe doesn’t work out, there could be other ideas like the shoe.”