One in three Australians over the age of 65 experience falls every year. A team of researchers at the University of Wollongong aims to combat this statistic with a pair of smart shoes, a technologically advanced tool to increase physical activity and reduce falls among older individuals.

The study highlights how inadequate physical activity contributes to muscle weakness and cognitive decline, leading to an increased risk of falling. Motivating adults over the age of 65 to walk more, the customised smart shoes pair wirelessly with a watch that measures the users walking ability and sends alerts when a possible fall is detected.

University of Wollongong senior lecturer Dr Winson Lee is leading the project and is trialling a shoe prototype on a focus groups.

“We invite some elder people to come and we give them the smart shoes and all the interface to the older adults. We receive feedback from older people, and we try to improve the user interface,” Dr Lee said.

“We try to make everything [the technology] simple and easy to be understood and I hope they understand the benefits of reduced risk and more encouragement for walking.”

The technology in the shoes includes force sensors, distance/position transducers and accelerometers. The technology detects the centre of the mass movement, foot clearance from the floor, changes in walking patterns and smoothness of lower-limb motion.

Featured: shoe-embedded sensors and computer programming to analyse walking performance. Feeback modalities to advise users how they should change their walking patterns to improve walking ability and stability.
(images supplied Dr Winson Lee)

UOW Global Challenges Program funding assisted the research project.  At this stage, more than 30 older adults in Hong Kong and 15 in Australia have tested the shoes.

Warrigal aged care worker Suzie Whitehead said some residents are determined to walk and see it as a sign of independence, while others experience fear and anxiety.

“For residents who are aware they are declining and losing steadiness on their feet, there’s definitely fear,” Ms Whitehead said.

“For people who have already had a fall, there’s a huge resistance for residents to get back up on their feet and try walking again, so I would say there is a fear factor that affects a lot of people.”

The team is working towards a partnership with health care providers to sell the product as a medical device.

“Before any medical devices can be sold the device has to be listed in the Australian Government’s Therapeutic Goods Administration. I think this is the body that will determine what procedures we need to do before our device can be sold” Dr Lee said.

If the smart shoes don’t meet the criteria to be categorised as a medical device, the team aims to mass-produce the item to be sold in retail stores.