Scientists at the Photon Institute at the University of Manchester have developed a smart carpet, which they unveiled at the Photon 12 conference this past week, capable of monitoring the gait of everyone who treads on it, as well as quantifying that data to trigger alerts when an individual falls or shows indications that a fall may be imminent.

This technology was developed to address a huge problem for our rapidly aging society – the fact that as people grow old they are likely to fall and hurt themselves eventually.

About 1,800 elderly folks in assisted living facilities die each year from fall-related injuries, and those who survive falls often times suffer hip fractures or head injuries which cause permanent disability and lower quality of life.

Falls are much more common among individuals living in nursing homes, with as much as three-quarters of all nursing home residents experience one fall each year, twice the rate experienced by elderly individuals living in the community.

However, all adults over the age of 65 are at a high risk of sustaining a serious injury due to a fall in the home and could stand to benefit from a technology that can objectively detect changes in an individuals gait.

The researchers developed the “magic carpet” using a novel tomographic technique similar to hospital scanners. It maps 2D images by using light propagating under the surface of the smart carpet. The system can also be developed to detect chemical spills or fire as an early warning system, but the primary application is in quantifying an individual’s gait, which can be used not only to monitor elderly individuals at high risk for fall-related injury, but also by individuals undergoing physical therapy for prior injury to track their progress.

“The carpet can gather a wide range of information about a person’s condition; from biomechanical to chemical sensing of body fluids, enabling holistic sensing to provide an environment that detects and responds to changes in patient condition,” said the lead developer Dr. Patricia Scully. “The carpet can be retrofitted at low cost, to allow living space to adapt as the occupiers’ needs evolve – particularly relevant with an aging population and for those with long term disabilities – and incorporated non-intrusively into any living space or furniture surface such as a mattress or wall that a patient interacts with.”

“Falls are a really important problem for our ageing society. More than a third of older people fall each year, and in nursing and residential homes it is much more common than that,” added collaborating professor Chris Todd. “Older people will benefit from exercises to improve balance and muscle strength in the legs.  So being able to identify changes in people’s walking patterns and gait in the natural environment, such as in a corridor in a nursing home, could really help us identity problems earlier on. This is really exciting work at the forefront of research using technologies to prevent falls and represents an unique collaboration between scientists from different backgrounds working together to identity a smart solution to an important problem for our country and indeed all over the world.”