Necks crane and heads shift as guest speaker Reggie Showers leans forward, disconnects his leg, and holds it up high.
“My first set of legs were really ugly,” Showers remembers. “Just think of what that does to a kid’s body image at a time when you’re trying to do things like talk to girls.
“Prostheses have come a long way since then – look at my legs now; they’re unique and dynamic.”
Showers is a double amputee—the result of an electrical accident when he was 14 years old—but he’s also a world champion motorcycle drag racer, a rock climber, and a pilot.
Most recently, he’s added certified snowboard instructor to the list.
Showers exudes a positive energy and passion for life, and hopes he can show others dealing with amputations and prosthetic limbs that they can overcome their disabilities.
Earlier this month, he joined a group of 40 STEM teachers at Boston-based software company PTC as part of its STEM Certificate Program. The challenge, to design a smart, connected prosthesis system, incorporating IoT technology, that improves the user experience during alpine sports activities.
Designing with the user in mind
The first step to designing a prosthesis is listening. User-centered design is all about understanding the needs, wants and limitations of the people who will use them.
“Snowboarding is challenging because it relies on heel turns and toe turns,” Showers explains. “We’re fine with the heel turns, but with prosthetic feet you have very limited flexibility in the toe area, so the toe turns are really difficult,” he says. “While boarding, I’d like to have more of a shock absorber in the pylon section of the leg to provide some spring.”
During a brainstorming session, some of the teachers toss around ideas for specialized sports equipment especially built for amputees, but Showers interjects. “It’s important to me to use a standard snowboard and bindings, rather than having something special built for amputees,” he says. It’s nice to be able to just walk into a shop and use normal equipment – to feel normal.
Showers also likes to snowboard in shorts, so the look of the prosthesis is crucial for him.
“I prefer it,” he says. “Wearing shorts shows off my ‘metal’ and lets me be an inspiration to people. As I pass people while boarding down a mountain I’ve heard comments like, ‘That’s badass’ and ‘Much respect’ – and that makes me feel like I’m making a difference.”
Building a smart, connected prosthesis
In developing their smart, connected prosthesis, teams consider the user experience and what types of information the device should collect, as well as the types of sensors that can be used, and the benefits of connecting to the Internet to enable feedback loops and remote control.
After talking with Showers and collaborating together, the teachers present their ideas, including a customization plan, a user interface storyboard, a system diagram, and a FMEA (Failure Mode and Effects Analysis).
- Connecting with trail maps and conditions via the Internet
- Tracking performance and competing against other boarders via a social media feature
- Pressure sensors that send alerts before they caused painful blisters
- Executing toe turns with a flexible toe joint
- Warming the legs via a heating element triggered by temperature sensors
- Wearing a cover on the prosthesis that could play video images while racing down the slopes
“Wow! There are a lot of smart people in this room,” Showers says as he listens to the presentations.
And while these are only concepts right now, with an estimated 50 billion things connected to the Internet by the end of the decade, why shouldn’t prosthetic limbs be included?
Photos by Matt Butler