Reducing pressure at Georgia Tech

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One of the best things about working in TestFairy is that you get to meet so many great research teams and some of them actually develop products that make people’s life better. Check out this  team from the Georgia Institute of Technology REAR (Rehabilitation Engineering and Applied Research) Lab, led by Prof. Stephen Sprigle. They are working on a product called WiSAT (Wheelchair In-seat Activity Tracker), which is an activity tracker app that will encourage healthy behaviors and promote pressure ulcer prevention for people sitting in wheelchairs. In other words, they build a Fitbit for wheelchair users!

I spoke with JJ O’Brien, a graduate research assistant at Georgia Tech who is currently working in Georgia Tech’s REAR Lab as a project manager on the WiSAT project.

“Individuals who spend most of their time in wheelchairs are at risk of developing pressure ulcers (PrUs). When people are immobile in a chair for long periods of time, they increase their risk of sores forming, most often on the buttocks or thigh area. This can be a big problem because pressure ulcers can lead to infection, hospitalization, missing work for weeks on end, and in some cases, even death. To combat this, clinicians will usually prescribe wheelchair users a series of weight shifts and pressure reliefs. These are movements that the wheelchair users are encouraged to make throughout the day where they relieve pressure from their butt by doing things such as a front lean, a left or right lean, or even a wheelchair push up. The problem is that most people do not end up following through with the doctor’s recommendation. WiSAT comes in as an activity tracker tool that will encourage the wheelchair user to perform more of these weight shifts and pressure reliefs throughout the day.”

Will WiSAT replace the role of a physiotherapist?

“WiSAT is not really a replacement for the physical therapist or the clinician. It is more of a tool to try and encourage wheelchair users to comply with the instructions they have received from their doctor. They would still be doing the weight shifts and pressure reliefs themselves, but this app would provide a way for them to keep track of their weight shifts and remind them when it’s time to perform another one.”

How does WiSAT work?

“WiSAT has a pressure sensor mat that would go under the user’s wheelchair cushion and monitor their seated behaviour throughout the day. It would then take values from a series of six sensors and transmit those values via bluetooth to a smartphone. The smartphone can then use the machine learning algorithm to classify what the user is doing in their chair and condense that data down into a series of visualizations that would show the user their performance throughout the week. Since WiSAT knows if the user is moving enough or not, the smartphone app would send them reminders in the form of push notifications to let them know when it’s time to start moving again. The idea is that over time, WiSAT would begin to build better habits for the wheelchair users and that weight shifts and pressure reliefs would become something that they do without thinking about it.”

What kinds of problems did you encounter during development?

“One of the big things that the team had to think about in developing this project was data integrity. With bluetooth technology especially, there is a high risk that some of the data is just not going to make it up to the phone. The solution was to develop a system which essentially checks on both the app side and the data logger side that the data has been properly received, processed, and stored. Another big thing was performing a usability study, which is where TestFairy comes in.”

What brought you to TestFairy?

“Since the app is very much dependent on how users interact with it, it must not only function technically, but also be user friendly. Our team was looking for a solution that would allow them to deploy the app to the study participants’ phones and receive feedback on how these participants were interacting with the app, as well as capture information such as when the app crashes or if there are any bugs and that’s when we found TestFairy.

TestFairy allowed the team to not only deploy WiSAT on the lab test phones, but also capture very detailed screen information to monitor the user’s interactions with the app. Our plan is to complete the actual development of the app and then carry out an official usability study. After that, the team will partner with the University of Pittsburgh and the Department of Veterans Affairs to carry out a larger usability study with approximately 60 to 70 users for a period of about 6 months.

This is where TestFairy will become extremely vital because in that period, the team may only see the users at the beginning and end of the study, so TestFairy will ensure that the team doesn’t lose potentially 6 months worth of data. We will know how users use our product, what problems they have and understand if they use the product on a regular basis. Knowing that in real time, rather than at the end of the research would save us a lot of time and make this research successful.”

Who else is part of the team behind WiSAT?

“Prof Stephen Sprigle is the project lead and the principle investigator on many of the studies that the team is running. Dr. Sharon Sonenblum is a research engineer who deals a lot with the data collection of the study and works closely with an algorithm team. Ashley Andrews has worked extensively on the hardware and data logging side, as well as Kathleen Jordan who came onboard recently and in addition, helps Dr. Sonenblum with the data collection process. On the algorithm side, Nauman Ahad has been working hard on algorithm development.”