While it’s exciting to think of the future of prosthetics as involving mind-control and robotic skin, the reality is that it will be a while until those futuristic technologies — which can cost an upward of tens of thousands of dollars — are affordable for everyone. That’s why researchers at the University of Applied Sciences in Linz, Austria, have been working on the proCover, a sensory smart sock that allows below the knee prosthetic users to sense the world around them.
According to a research paper on the prototype, the sock uses non-invasive biometric sensors to sense pressure not just at the sole of the foot (as is the case with most prosthetic sensors on the market), but up and down the entire lower leg. In order to design the sock, the researchers worked extensively with different amputees to determine how to best address sensory needs.
The piezoresistive fabric, used in the socks has also been shown as a successful form of sensory technology in automobiles, furniture, and socks to detect diabetic ulcers, but this is the first time sensory fabric has been applied to use in prosthetics. Piezoresistive fabrics hold varying amounts of charges, and are commonly used in the creation of electronic textiles.
The proCover sock can detect touch, pressure variability, and the bending of a prosthetic limb. In a study of four participants, the sock allowed each subject to correctly identify the exact region of their foot to which pressure was being applied. Researchers hope that an increased ability to sense pressure could help prosthetic users with tasks like driving.
“Our vision is to introduce a low-cost sensing wearable that can be applied retroactively to prosthetics to address this gap,” the team says in the paper’s introduction.
The researchers plan on introducing a glove version of the proCover next.